February 4, 2021
The ENIGMA-ADHD Working Group published their second large study on the brains of people with ADHD in the American Journal of Psychiatry this month. In this second study, the focus was on the cerebral cortex, which is the outer layer of the brain.
ADHD symptoms include inattention and/or hyperactivity and acting impulsively. The disorder affects more than one in 20 (5.3%) children, and two-thirds of those diagnosed continue to experience symptoms as adults.
In this study, researchers found subtle differences in the brain’s outer layer - the cortex - when they combined brain imaging data on almost 4,000 participants from 37 research groups worldwide. The differences were only significant for children and did not hold for adolescents or adults. The childhood effects were most prominent and widespread for the surface area of the cortex. More focal changes were found in the thickness of the cortex. All differences were subtle and detected only at a group level, and thus these brain images cannot be used to diagnose ADHD or guide its treatment.
These subtle differences in the brain’s cortex were not limited to people with the clinical diagnosis of ADHD: they were also present - in a less marked form - in youth with some ADHD symptoms. This second finding results from a collaboration between the ENIGMA-ADHD Working Group and the Generation-R study from Rotterdam, which has brain images on 2700 children aged 9-11 years from the general population. The researchers found more symptoms of inattention to be associated with a decrease in cortical surface area. Furthermore, siblings of those with ADHD showed changes to their cortical surface area that resembled their affected sibling. This suggests that familial factors such as genetics or shared environment may play a role in brain cortical characteristics.
This is the largest study to date to look at the cortex of people with ADHD. It included 2246 people with a diagnosis of ADHD and 1713 people without, aged between four and 63 years old. This is the second study published by the ENIGMA-ADHD Working Group; the first examined structures that are deep in the brain. The ADHD Working Group is one of over 50 working groups of the ENIGMA Consortium, in which international researchers pull together to understand the brain alterations associated with different disorders and the role of genetic and environmental factors in those alterations.
The authors say the findings could help improve understanding of the disorder. ‘We identify cortical differences that are consistently associated with ADHD combining data from many different research groups internationally. We find that the differences extend beyond narrowly-defined clinical diagnoses and are seen, in a less marked manner, in those with some ADHD symptoms and in unaffected siblings of people with ADHD. This finding supports the idea that the symptoms underlying ADHD may be a continuous trait in the population, which has already been reported by other behavioral and genetic studies.’. In the future, the ADHD Working Group hopes to look at additional key features in the brain- such as the structural connections between brain areas – and to increase the representation of adults affected by ADHD, in whom limited research has been performed to date.