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New Study Finds Brain Structure Differences in Young Children With ADHD

When children are diagnosed with ADHD, parents may wonder if they are to blame in some way — especially when their kids exhibit behavioral issues once they’re in school. But a landmark study has now found that young children with ADHD actually have different brain structures than their peers, suggesting that brain activity and efficiency may be established much earlier than previously believed.
The birth-to-three period has the fastest rate of brain development across the entire human lifespan, but the study published in the Journal of the International Neuropsychological Society shows that the structural differences in the brains of children with ADHD were already in place by age four.
As senior study author Mark Mahone explained in the publication: “There are structural differences in brain volumes, there are connections between brain regions reflected in white matter changes in people with ADHD, there are chemical changes in some of the major transmitter systems in the brain. When the brain is asked to do something, the brains of children with ADHD do the same task but the brain is less efficient.”
The study is the first of its kind in terms of examining the brains of young children. While other neuroimaging studies have noted the differences in the brains of children with ADHD ranging from age six to 16, this new evidence illustrates that this disorder is neurological, rather than merely behavioral, and is present from an early age. The structural differences seen included a smaller sized brain overall, as well as reduced sizes of specific regions including the temporal and prefrontal lobes.
ADHD often goes unrecognized until a child exhibits behavioral problems in a school setting. This may be partially due to the fact that three-year-olds and four-year-olds aren’t really expected to sit still in many situations. According to the CDC, more than 6 million children ages two to 17 have been diagnosed with ADHD in the U.S., and boys are almost twice as likely as girls to have been diagnosed with the disorder. The number of young people diagnosed with ADHD was half that number 30 years ago, which has prompted many experts to suggest the disorder is actually over-diagnosed.
But a study like this has the potential to prove the critics wrong. Even the study authors were surprised by what they found. Although very few of the children involved in the study had received a prior ADHD diagnosis and none had been medicated for the disorder, the findings could prove to be an important missing piece in understanding the disorder and how to approach diagnoses and treatment.
As Mahone told MD Magazine: “It is our hope that with earlier (and accurate) identification of ADHD, it will allow for earlier and more targeted treatments, including behavioral, psychosocial, educational and medical. As a general principle, earlier intervention for children with neurodevelopmental disorders (such as ADHD) can lead to better outcomes and reduced functional problems associated with the condition.”

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