Perhaps one explanation is that adults have far more freedom to choose the environment in which they live and the kind of work they do so that it better matches their cognitive style and reward preferences. If you were a restless kid who couldn’t sit still in school, you might choose to be an entrepreneur or carpenter, but you would be unlikely to become an accountant. But what is happening at the level of the brain that may explain this spontaneous “recovery”?
To try to answer that question, Aaron T. Mattfeld, a neuroscientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, now at Florida International University in Miami, compared the brain function with resting-state M.R.I.s of three groups of adults: those whose childhood A.D.H.D persisted into adulthood; those whose had remitted; and a control group who never had a diagnosis of it. Normally, when someone is unfocused and at rest, there is synchrony of activity in brain regions known as the default mode network, which is typically more active during rest than during performance of a task. (In contrast, these brain regions in people with A.D.H.D. appear functionally disconnected from each other.) Dr. Mattfeld found that adults who had had A.D.H.D as children but no longer had it as adults had a restoration of the normal synchrony pattern, so their brains looked just like those of people who had never had it. Continue reading the main story Continue reading the main story Continue reading the main story
WE don’t yet know whether these brain changes preceded or followed the behavioral improvement, so the exact mechanism of adult recovery is unclear.
But in another measure of brain synchrony, the adults who had recovered looked more like adults with A.D.H.D.
In people without it, when the default mode network is active, another network, called the task-positive network, is inhibited. When the brain is focusing, the task-positive network takes over and quiets the default mode network. This reciprocal relationship is necessary in order to focus.
Both groups of adult A.D.H.D. patients, including those who had recovered, displayed simultaneous activation of both networks, as if the two regions were out of step, working at cross-purposes. Thus, adults who lost most of their symptoms did not have entirely normal brain activity.
What are the implications of this new research for how we think about and treat kids with A.D.H.D.? Of course, I am not suggesting that we take our kids out of school and head for the savanna. Nor am I saying we that should not use stimulant medications like Adderall and Ritalin, which are safe and effective and very helpful to many kids with A.D.H.D.
But perhaps we can leverage the experience of adults who grew out of their symptoms to help these kids. First, we should do everything we can to help young people with A.D.H.D. select situations — whether schools now or professions later on — that are a better fit for their novelty-seeking behavior, just the way adults seem to self-select jobs in which they are more likely to succeed.
In school, these curious, experience-seeking kids would most likely do better in small classes that emphasize hands-on-learning, self-paced computer assignments and tasks that build specific skills.
This will not eliminate the need for many kids with A.D.H.D. to take psychostimulants. But let’s not rush to medicalize their curiosity, energy and novelty-seeking; in the right environment, these traits are not a disability, and can be a real asset.
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