Teaching ADHD Brain Science to Kids

Scientists at the Okinawa Institute of Science and Technology Graduate University (OIST) in Japan recently published their research on attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) in Frontiers for Young Minds, an electronic scientific journal whose primary audience includes children from elementary and junior high schools.

In this unique journal, children are involved in the fact-checking process that is so important for any respected scientific journal, including the thorough peer-review of submitted articles.

Students aged 12 to 15 from the “Champions of Science” program at the Chabot Space and Science Center in California performed the peer-review of the collaborative research by the OIST Human Developmental Neurobiology Unit, the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro and the D’Or Institute for Research and Education in Brazil.

Supported by scientists, the adolescents looked over the research paper titled “Focusing is hard! Brain responses to reward in attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.”

They checked for the robustness of the science as well as the quality and clarity of the language to ensure that everyone would be able to understand the article. The young reviewers then offered their feedback to the authors.

The research paper focused on the influence of ADHD on children’s behavior. The scientists long-term plan is to not only understand the nature of ADHD, but to determine how ADHD affects brain processes and how this translates into everyday behavior.

“Kids with ADHD are often misunderstood and thought as ‘problem kids’ in school and by parents,” said Dr. Emi Furukawa of OIST. “They tend to have more difficulties in everyday activities, sometimes remaining through adulthood, and we want to find out why that might be.”

Furthermore, even though pharmacological treatment is available, its efficiency is limited due to the lack of understanding of the neurobiology of ADHD.

“We do have some behavioral and pharmaceutical interventions reducing the symptoms of ADHD, but we do not know exactly why they sometimes work and sometimes don’t, along with the potential side effects as well,” said Furukawa.

“So we want to know exactly what might be happening in the brains of children with ADHD to better refine the interventions for them.”

During the study, the researchers focused on the striatum, known as the reward/pleasure center of the brain. A group of college students with or without ADHD performed a simple task in an fMRI scanner that measured activity in the striatum when waiting for a reward and when the reward was delivered.

The fMRI scans revealed that the striatum of students without ADHD were much more active in anticipation of the reward, potentially helping them focus onto the task at hand knowing reward was likely to follow. Students with ADHD, however, displayed the opposite pattern in that receiving the reward triggered greater activity in the striatum compared to the anticipation the prize. This may have a negative effect on the ability of children with ADHD to stay focused if there is no reward immediately at hand.

“As psychologists, we have known we have to reward children with ADHD more frequently,” said Furukawa. “But parents and teachers have a hard time doing so because they wonder ‘why do I have to more often reward children who misbehave?'”

Although it may seem counter-intuitive to offer more frequent rewards for children who are not following directions, Furukawa thinks that providing neurobiological-based explanations about ADHD might make more sense to caregivers or parents and lead to more effective behavior management strategies that can benefit children with ADHD.

In any case, Furukawa acknowledged that having children “peer-review” the research paper was extremely beneficial.

“They came up with questions that none of the scientific reviewers thought to ask, asking about another part of the brain that lit up in both the ADHD and control groups and wondering about its function,” she said.

“Children have a different way at looking at the world, which as a scientist sometimes makes you re-think the way you explain your research. This system also facilitates fostering the next generation of scientists.”

Source: Okinawa Institute of Science and Technology Graduate University