Opposite Brain Activity in Autism and ADHD

The ‘Rich Club Network’ Integrates Information from Different Parts of the Brain

Many children who display hyperactive or inattentive behavior are diagnosed with both Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD) and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). A new study published last month in Human Brain Mapping, however, suggests the two disorders may be the result of distinctly different, opposing patterns of brain activity.

While ASD and ADHD share some common genetic risk factors and behavioral symptoms, this study looked at the dense network of neural connections that integrates information from different parts of the brain, referred to as the ‘rich club network’. It is believed this rich club may make it possible to accomplish highly complex ordinary tasks, like driving, that require the integration of information from different senses, cognitive ability, and motor skills.

The scientists mapped the long paths of neurons across the brains of 16 autistic children, 20 with ADHD, and 20 controls. They examined which neurons worked in sync while the brains were at rest and combined the structural and functional data, revealing the rich club network by identifying the most highly connected regions of the brain.

It was found that the children with autism tended to have a disorganized rich club network of neurons with an abundance of weak connections. The children with ADHD were shown to have much fewer connections than either the autistic or control group.  Because this study focused on a rather small sampling, the researchers examined data of 85 people with autism and 101 controls stored in the Autism Brain Imaging Data Exchange, and found very similar results.

There have been many studies recently about people with autism, synapses, and brain activity, with apparently inconsistent results at first glance. Some studies show that people with autism have weaker local neurological connections than those without, while others indicate that autism may be the result of too many local connections and not enough long-distance ones. This new study, however, finds a possible middle ground – excess local connections (not necessarily stronger or more functional), but only within the rich club networks.

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