Neural flexibility in brains of children with ADHD is reduced

Researchers have used MRI to study the brains of children with ADHD and found out that neural flexibility in brains of such children decreases across the brain and throughout sub-networks considered crucial to cognitive flexibility.

Researchers say their findings could help doctors diagnose children with ADHD and monitor the severity of the condition and treatment effectiveness.

According to researchers, some people are more cognitively flexible than others. It’s just the luck of the genetic draw in some ways, though we can improve our cognitive flexibility once we realize we’re being inflexible. Think of it like this: we’re cognitively flexible when we can start dinner, let the onions simmer, text a friend, return to making dinner without scorching the onions, and then finish dinner while also carrying on a conversation with your spouse. We’re also cognitively flexible when we switch communication styles while talking to a friend and then a daughter and then a coworker, or when we solve problems creatively, say, when you realize you don’t have onions to make the dinner you want, so you need a new plan.

It’s part of our executive function, which includes accessing memories and exhibiting self control. Poor executive function is a hallmark of ADHD in children and adults.

When we’re cognitively inflexible, we can’t focus on some of the tasks, we pick up the phone and scroll social media without thinking, forgetting what we’re doing while making dinner. In adults but especially in children, such cognitive inflexibility can wreak havoc with an individual’s ability to learn and accomplish tasks.

Researchers wanted to find out what’s happening throughout the brain when executive function, particularly cognitive flexibility, is off line. They used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to study the neural flexibility of 180 children diagnosed with ADHD and 180 typically developing children.

Researchers say they observed significantly decreased neural flexibility in the ADHD group at both the whole brain and sub-network levels. The researchers also found that children with ADHD who received medication exhibited significantly increased neural flexibility compared to children with ADHD who were not taking medication. Children on medication displayed neural flexibility that was not statistically different from the group of traditionally developing children.

Lastly, the researchers found that they could use fMRI to discover neural flexibility differences across entire brain regions between children with ADHA and the traditionally developing children.

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