Release: Atypical brain development observed in preschoolers with ADHD symptoms

NIH-funded study uses high-resolution brain scans to uncover structural changes

Monday, March 26, 2018
Person holding pen points at brain scans displayed on a light box on the wall.
--Stock Image

Children as young as 4 years old with symptoms of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) may have significant differences in brain structure, compared to children without such symptoms, according to researchers funded by the National Institutes of Health.

Their study is the first comprehensive examination of brain structure changes in preschoolers with signs of ADHD, a disorder marked by a pattern of inattention, hyperactivity and impulsive behavior. The study appears in the Journal of the International Neuropsychological Society.

“Researchers were expecting to find the beginning signs of possible atypical brain development,” said James A. Griffin, Ph.D., deputy chief of the Child Development and Behavior Branch at NIH’s Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, which supported the research. “What they found in their high-resolution scans was solid evidence that these structural changes already are prominent by age 4 or 5.”  

Previous studies have documented brain differences in adolescents with ADHD. However, few studies have looked for such differences in preschoolers, despite research citing ADHD as the most commonly diagnosed psychological disorder among young children.

The research, led by E. Mark Mahone, Ph.D., was conducted at the Kennedy Krieger Institute in Baltimore. The study included 90 young children: 38 typically developing preschoolers and 52 preschoolers with symptoms of ADHD.

The children’s scans revealed that those with ADHD symptoms had multiple areas with less brain matter volume than their typical peers, and these differences were consistent with parent reports of hyperactive and impulsive behaviors.

The researchers cited challenges collecting data, mainly getting youngsters to lie still during the brain scan, particularly children with ADHD-associated behavior. It is possible that the children who were eventually scanned had more moderate symptoms and, therefore, were better suited to participate in the study. The authors speculated that children with more severe ADHD may have more pronounced brain differences.

The research offers a greater understanding of brain development in children with ADHD symptoms, Griffin said. Researchers will continue to follow the children, monitoring brain changes or differences as the they grow older. The study provides the groundwork for future analysis of structural and functional brain changes in ADHD, which the researchers hope will provide new insights into how symptoms of the disorder relate to differences in the brain.  

Reference

Jacobson, L.A., et al. Anomalous Brain Development is Evident in Preschoolers with Attention Deficit Hyperactive Disorder. Journal of the International Neuropsychology Society. 2018; doi:10.1017/S1355617718000103

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About the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD): NICHD conducts and supports research in the United States and throughout the world on fetal, infant and child development; maternal, child and family health; reproductive biology and population issues; and medical rehabilitation. For more information, visit http://www.nichd.nih.gov.

About the National Institutes of Health (NIH): NIH, the nation's medical research agency, includes 27 Institutes and Centers and is a component of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. NIH is the primary federal agency conducting and supporting basic, clinical, and translational medical research, and is investigating the causes, treatments, and cures for both common and rare diseases. For more information about NIH and its programs, visit http://www.nih.gov