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Researchers at the University of Maryland School of Medicine have, for the first time, identified specific regions of the brain that play a vital role in how children with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) monitor and control their hyperactive and impulsive behavior. These findings may lead to more precise ways to diagnose and treat children with ADHD. The findings were presented this week at a meeting of the Society of Neurosciences in San Diego.
“This study gives us a window into understanding the link between children’s behavior both in the home and school setting and how their brains function during cognitive tasks,” says Julie Schweitzer, Ph.D., assistant professor of psychiatry at the University of Maryland School of Medicine and the study’s lead researcher.
Dr. Schweitzer and her colleagues studied 13 children with ADHD, ages 8-13, who displayed symptoms of overactivity, inattention and impulsivity. The researchers used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to measure the children’s brain activity while they solved working memory tasks such as having to add a number to a previous number held in memory. The parents of the children involved in the study completed rating scales that assessed levels of hyperactivity and impulsive behavior at home. The research team measured the relationship between the behavioral ratings provided by the parents and the patterns of brain activity observed during the fMRI sessions.
“When performing the tasks, we found that the children who were considered less overactive and impulsive by their parents were more likely to use specific brain regions associated with cognitive control and performance monitoring, language, memory and sensory processes, all of which can aid in directing behavior and thinking about its consequences,” said Dr. Schweitzer. “Those regions are the anterior cingulated cortex, the medial and lateral prefrontal cortex, temporal gyrus and the thalamus.”
On the other hand, according to Dr. Schweitzer, children considered more hyperactive and impulsive by their parents were less likely to use those specific regions of the brain. “Therefore, they would be less proficient at anticipating the possible consequences of their actions at home,” Dr. Schweitzer says.
ADHD is the most prevalent childhood psychiatric disorder, with approximately 5 to 7 percent of children thought to have the disorder. It is characterized by problems with inattention, restlessness and impulsivity at home and in the academic environment. Children with ADHD also display cognitive problems, such as impaired working memory, that can interfere with their academic success and social relationships.
“One of the goals of our research is to better understand the connection between what we see in the brain imaging laboratory and its relationship to the child’s behavior in the natural environment,” Dr. Schweitzer said. “Ultimately, clues from these types of studies should enable us to better understand how children with different behavioral characteristics use their brain to solve complex tasks. These data can suggest ways of more precisely diagnosing children with ADHD and potentially help us discover pharmacological, behavioral and educational interventions targeted to children with ADHD, depending on activity in certain parts of the brain.”
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