Your Brain on ADHD

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Listen to this 'Talk of the Nation' topic

All right, class. Today we're going to learn about attention-deficit hyperactivity dis... What? No, I said I wanted blue construction paper on the bulletin board, not red! I'm sorry, what was I saying? Oh, right, attention-deficit hyperact... Make sure you align the cutouts in a straight row on the right side of the board. I don't want it to look lopsided. Sorry, I got distracted. What was I saying again? Oh, right, attention-deficit... No, no, no! You're doing it wrong!

And so forth.

A new study from the National Institute of Mental Health and McGill University shows that the brains of children with attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, or A.D.H.D., develop normally but more slowly in the areas of the cerebral cortex most involved in attention and motor control than the brains of children without the disorder. What does this mean? Well, it helped put to rest the theory that children with A.D.H.D. have a brain deficiency or flaw. Today we'll talk to our own Jon Hamilton, from NPR's Science Desk, about the larger implications of this study.



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So! The brains of ADHD children (adults?) are growing out-of-sync. Sounds like a condition that would be best treated with some games that develop one's concentration skills. (Like the board games of old) Or maybe Tai-chi!

Sent by Harold | 2:34 PM | 11-13-2007

My child has ADHD, and if games that develop concentration were the answer she would have been cured long ago. The syndrome is organic, and she has to constantly work around and through her differences. It is not easy

Sent by Marie Johnson | 2:53 PM | 11-13-2007

What's first the egg or the chicken...meaning, the cortex may be developed because of its environment and these kids have not been exposed to what developed our cortex to a more mature state, like the tolerance to frustration?

Sent by Nadia A. | 2:55 PM | 11-13-2007

my 9 year old daughter was diagnosed 2 months ago. The meds are working and improving her focus and impulsivity. She is brilliant, and ahead in a lot of scholastic areas. I'm wondering if she too will grow out of the ADD

Sent by Ann M | 2:56 PM | 11-13-2007

The people on the program kept talking about the "problem" of ADHD. Many of the people I think of as creative, innovative doers have ADHD. I have ADHD and am known as the person at the table that can see solutions other can not. I owe my career to the "problem" of ADHD. I am sure it it sometimes challenging working with me but the reward far exceeds the cost.

Sent by Jim Winslow | 3:02 PM | 11-13-2007

Having been diagnosed with ADHD at 9, I have been constantly informed that I'm not trying hard enough or I'm faking it. I agree wholly with Marie. If games or castigation or warm fuzzies could fix this problem, we wouldn't be talking about it. I'm concerned that this study doesn't offer explanations as to why some brains finish developing and why the rest of us continue in our own version of human evolution. I'm wondering if we're not beginning to see that the things we think are so easily placed into diagnosis labels aren't a more interesting continuum... or if we're really looking at different disorders with similar symptoms.

Sent by pw | 3:02 PM | 11-13-2007

Our moderator opened AD/HD talk with remark that the old controversy, whether AD/HD was brain-based, "has been put to bed."

Yes, but.

There remains the problem of which persons are diagnosed with AD/HD, as opposed to the biology of the condition. Diagnosis is a different problem. AD/HD itself is certainly brain-based, and this research is really interesting and helpful.

Accurate diagnosis, by all reports, is painstaking. It is commonly carried out by non-experts, inaccurately. There is a documented epidemic of overdiagnosis. This often yields misdiagnosis

Is it a kid who will grow out of it or a kid who will not? You guys overlooked the reporting nuance: or is it a kid who has been misdiagnosed into it? (And therefore missing out on treatment for the correct diagnosis.)

Our moderator might better have opened by identifying the old controversy about the basis in the brain, and then included the further epidemiologic facts about identifying and mis-identifying people who are accurately diagnosed.

Okay, okay, I get it, time's aflying and a moderator can only skim the tops of things. Still, this discussion purported to comprehensively address the problem of millions of people diagnosed with AD/HD. Actually, it only presented interesting science about accurately diagnosed people. There are millions of others. The science journalist who was consulted should have identified that. Otherwise it's like reporting an advance in earthquake science with the claim that now we can keep all the bridges from falling down.

Know what I mean, journalistically?

Sent by davy B | 3:10 PM | 11-13-2007

It should be noted that this study focused only on the thickness of cortex, and not on the function of that cortical tissue.

One should not conclude that a child with ADHD will "grow out of it" from this study. There are numerous recent studies that demonstrate cognitive and behavioral effects of ADHD that last into adulthood. It is also noteworthy that abnormal hyperactivity often disappears in adults with ADHD, but inattentive symptoms of ADHD do not. Therefore, adults with ADHD will still be prone to problems that affect their work and family life.

It is true that structural differences are less dramatic in adults with ADHD than in children with ADHD. However, compared to normal adults, adults with ADHD show cortical dysfunction, namely reduced activation of brain regions related to attention and executive control. Behavioral deficits in adults with ADHD can be directly related to that dysfunction.

Sent by brainscan | 4:36 PM | 11-13-2007

The reporters comment implies that the brain "catches up" NOT TRUE - only in cortal thickness, however, the cell structure may be different - not enough technology; plus there's 75% unknown variables - environment, etc. (learned behavior - neg. reinforcements) What they's a developmental delay. (no Indigo Children here) Still difficult to manage. What we all need to do is get the research to the classrooms (est. 10% of student population). Where's the funding??

Sent by Donna Christian | 10:15 PM | 11-13-2007

Doesn't anyone care about the students who are subjected to antisocial behavior and disruption from students who "act out?" It's great to learn that these students eventually catch up, but who is caring about the teachers and other students who must deal with sometimes multiple students who disrupt classes?

Sent by wb | 11:45 PM | 11-13-2007