ADHD and Genetics

Research shows a gene link to ADHD

The head of child psychiatry at the Royal Children’s Hospital (University of Melbourne, Australia), Professor Alasdair Vance, thinks that children with ADHD have impaired brain function most likely linked to a genetic condition occurring during pregnancy.

Dr. Vance believes he has conclusive evidence that key areas of the brain do not develop as quickly in children with ADHD. These areas, he posits, are linked to a child’s understanding of time and space as well as the ability to use working memory.

“So their ability to read other people’s body language, to pick up on the nuances of what their peer group are up to, would clearly be affected by the sort of developmental delays in brain development that we’ve identified,” he said.

“The most exciting part of this research is the opportunity to understand in detail the brain dysfunction in this group of children so we can better understand how, by changing the child’s environment, facilitated by medication treatments, we can maximize their learning.”

Vance used fMRI on an unmedicated group of boys aged eight to 12 who were diagnosed with ADHD. The fMRI enabled Vance to examine their brains while performing mental tasks. This data was compared to a group of healthy children. Vance said the data demonstrated that ADHD was not just a behavioral issue.

“If it was, one would expect the child’s brain would be functioning normally and that at some level they are making choices to behave in this way. This suggests they are actually activating their brain differently when they are doing the same task as a healthy kid.”

In an interview with the Brisbane Times, Vance, “…believes the research strongly suggests ADHD is a genetic condition occurring most probably during the second trimester of a woman’s pregnancy, but which can be modified through medication and by adapting the child’s environment.”

“I’m not saying that because you have such brain changes the only treatment is medication. Environmental cueing can help those compensatory brain networks to develop.”

“Helping teachers and parents understand how to more frequently cue a child with ADHD through such means as positive reinforcement when the child exhibits desired behavior and through emotional connections that reward the child for better attitudes, are just some of the ways in which the condition can be helped, Professor Vance says.”

“The number and quality of empathic, confiding, nurturing, flexible and adaptive human relationships can build resilience, build compensation or, if absent, make ADHD symptoms worse,” he said.

Vance’s results are preliminary. Furthermore, one cannot forget that ADHD is diagnosed from subjective analysis; it is one of the few diagnoses that can be made over the telephone since it involves acknowledging a series of characteristics or behaviors performed over time. So, we have a problem of antecedence; Vance examined boys that were subjectively diagnosed with ADHD to compare them with boys that were not diagnosed. Does the subjective diagnosis present a problem in this research? I would think so. Could it also be possible that the brain changes in the fMRI could occur as a result of conditioning, environmental toxins, etc? Possibly. Is it equally possible that Vance’s data only accounts for one possible cause out of many? Likely. That’s why I would contend the results are preliminary. We’ll see if the future proves me wrong on this one.

On a positive note Vance does seem to understand neuroplasticity. He does see value in behavioral shaping, compensatory training, etc. While his research is NOT the Holy Grail of ADHD, there is light at the end of the tunnel if we are forging ahead in our understanding of neuroplasticity from research like this.