MRI Scans Could Help Diagnose ADHD in Children

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Results from a study led by Yale School of Medicine show that functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scans could help diagnose attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) in children more effectively than current methods.

Statistics suggest that ADHD is one of the most common neurodevelopmental disorders, impacting around six million under 18-year olds in the U.S. alone. The condition has varied symptoms, but is often characterized by difficulties in paying attention, hyperactive behavior, or a lack of impulse control.

Current diagnostic methods rely on a caregiver accurately answering a checklist of questions, as well as other subjective measures, which can make coming to a definitive diagnosis difficult.

“There’s a need for a more objective methodology for a more efficient and reliable diagnosis,” said study co-author Huang Lin, a post-graduate researcher at the Yale School of Medicine in New Haven, Connecticut, who will present the study at the annual meeting of the Radiological Society of North America (RSNA) next week. “ADHD symptoms are often undiagnosed or misdiagnosed because the evaluation is subjective.”

The researchers studied MRI imaging data taken as part of the Adolescent Brain Cognitive Development (ABCD) study, which is currently the largest long-term study of brain development and child health in the U.S. The participants were aged 9–10 years and were recruited at 21 study centers around the country.

The team collected fMRI imaging data from 1,830 subjects with ADHD and 6,067 without ADHD to look for potential differences in neurology. The specific measures used included: fractional anisotropy, neurite density, mean-, radial- and axial diffusivity of white matter tracts, among others.

The results showed that children with ADHD had notable differences in brain neuroimaging. For example, they had lower fractional anisotropy and neurite density but higher mean- and radial-diffusivity than children without ADHD.

“We found changes in almost all the regions of the brain we investigated. The pervasiveness throughout the whole brain was surprising since many prior studies have identified changes in selective regions,” commented Lin in a press statement.

The researchers saw abnormal brain connectivity in children with ADHD versus controls in areas involved in memory processing and auditory processing. They also saw a thinner cortex and changes in the white matter, particularly in the frontal lobe of the brain.

“The frontal lobe is the area of the brain involved in governing impulsivity and attention or lack thereof—two of the leading symptoms of ADHD,” Lin said.

The team now hopes to develop their findings into a diagnostic tool, ideally using artificial intelligence and machine learning to analyze precise differences between children with and without the condition.

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