This article is reposted from the old WordPress incarnation of Not Exactly Rocket Science.
Attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder is the most common developmental disorder in children, affecting anywhere between 3-5% of the world’s school-going population. As the name suggests, kids with ADHD are hyperactive and easily distracted; they are also forgetful and find it difficult to control their own impulses.
While some evidence has suggested that ADHD brains develop in fundamentally different ways to typical ones, other results have argued that they are just the result of a delay in the normal timetable for development.
Now, Philip Shaw, Judith Rapaport and others from the National Institute of Mental Health have found new evidence to support the second theory. When some parts of the brain stick to their normal timetable for development, while others lag behind, ADHD is the result.
The idea isn’t new; earlier studies have found that children with ADHD have similar brain activity to slightly younger children without the condition. Rapaport’s own group had previously found that the brain’s four lobes developed in very much the same way, regardless of whether children had ADHD or not.
But looking at the size of entire lobes is a blunt measure that, at best, provides a rough overview. To get an sharper picture, they used magnetic resonance imaging to measure the brains of 447 children of different ages, often at more than one point in time.
At over 40,000 parts of the brain, they noted the thickness of the child’s cerebral cortex, the brain’s outer layer, where its most complex functions like memory, language and consciousness are thought to lie. Half of the children had ADHD and using these measurements, Shaw could work out how their cortex differed from typical children as they grew up.
The blood that flows into our heads is obviously important for it provides nutrients and oxygen to that most energetically demanding of organs – the brain. But for neuroscientists, blood flow in the brain has a special significance; many have used it to measure brain activity using a technique called functional magnetic resonance imaging, or fMRI.
This scanning technology has become a common feature of modern neuroscience studies, where it’s used to follow firing neurons and to identify parts of the brain that are active during common mental tasks. Its use rests on the assumption that the flow of blood (“haemodynamics” to those in the know) is a decent enough stand-in for the firing of neurons – the latter creates a shortage of nutrients and oxygen that is corrected by the former.
But Yevgeniy Sirotin and Aniruddha Das from Columbia University have found that this assumption might not be entirely valid. They used a new technique to independently measure and compare nerve activity and blood flow in the brains of live monkeys. Sure enough, they found a blood flow pattern that reliably matched the activity of the animals’ neurons.
But they also spotted something that no one has seen before – a second haemodynamic signal, of equal strength to the first, that didn’t correspond to any local brain activity. This second signal was not a sign of parts of the brain that are active, but those that may need to be active in the near future. It seems that if the brain expects a task in the future, it can anticipate which of its regions will be needed and flush them with blood in preparation.