Brain differences and ADHD

University of Washington researcher Theodore Beauchaine has found differences in the brain activity of teenage boys with ADHD. Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) was used to examine brain activity of teens with and without ADHD. Two brain areas were the focus of the study. The striatal region is involved in motivating people to engage in behaviour that is pleasurable or rewarding. The anterior cingulate cortex is activated when the reward stops – it “extinguishes” behaviour that is no longer rewarding.

Boys aged 12 to 16, either with or without ADHD, were required to play a computer game that offered the chance of winning up to a $50 reward. Eventually, the reward was removed. Although the behaviour and performance was the same regardless of the diagnosis, different brain areas were active for the boys with ADHD. On trials without reward, boys in the comparison group showed activation in the anterior cingulate cortex. The boys with ADHD continued to show activity only in the striatal region.

What are the implications of the differing brain activity? The findings suggest that boys with ADHD continue to be motivated to engage in behaviour even when it is no longer rewarding. A major strategy for adults working with teens who engage in inappropriate behaviour is to remove the positive outcomes related to the behaviour. These findings suggest that removing rewards won’t necessarily change the behaviour of a boy with ADHD. Previous behaviour research indicates that the best way to reduce an inappropriate behaviour is to reinforce a more positive action that’s inconsistent with the negative action. Rewarding the positive may be even more important for kids with ADHD in light of this brain research!

You can read more about the study here.

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3 Responses to Brain differences and ADHD
  1. The Mother
    March 23, 2009 | 4:37 pm

    I read this when it came out last week. I have a true ADHD kid, and I’m trying to figure out how to apply this to help him.

    Certainly the study suggests that removing positive reinforcement is a poor choice for behavior control. But I’m not sure that we can generalize all that much from this. To me, the findings suggest that ADHD kids are perfectly capable of providing their OWN positive reinforcement for previously learned behaviors. That’s bad news for anyone trying to help them deal with their hyperactivity and fidgety-ness.

    Hopefully, the researchers will follow this up with more work, and keep us lowly parents informed as they go.

  2. brianmacdonald
    March 23, 2009 | 7:09 pm

    I don’t have a child with ADHD, but to me this research points to the importance, and the difficulty, of finding a way to make positive behaviour MORE rewarding than the inappropriate behaviour.

    For younger kids, and maybe for older ones too, an important part of motivating them to behave appropriately is to do some relationship-building. Spending some positive time with your kids is essential if they’re having difficulties – you need to make some deposits in the relationship bank. Hopefully, this will help to motivate the kids to try to monitor their behaviour

  3. Agnes
    April 24, 2009 | 12:46 pm

    I think the brain is a pretty powerful machine that can be retrained. The Arrowsmith program, a unique teaching philosophy that some schools offer is based on the discoveries of two groundbreaking neuropsychologists – Aleksandr Luria, who mapped the human brain, and Mark Rosenzweig, who found outside stimulation could change the brains of rats. Barbara Arrowsmith, developed exercises based on these studies to retrain her own brain!

    More on the Arrowsmith program here:

    Arrowsmith Schools
    (Toronto and Peterborough, ON) :
    (Vancouver and Victoria, BC) :