Multitasking is more than just a professional talent. It necessitates cognitive flexibility, or the ability to effortlessly move between distinct brain functions, and it is required for human functioning. UNC researchers conducted a study to map the neural underpinnings of cognitive flexibility and discover differences in brain activity in children with and without Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD).
Their results, which were published in the journal Molecular Psychiatry, might aid clinicians in diagnosing youngsters with ADHD as well as monitoring the severity of the disorder and treatment success. Some persons have greater cognitive flexibility than others.
In some respects, it’s just the luck of the genetic draw, but we can enhance our cognitive flexibility once we recognise we’re being rigid. We are cognitively flexible when we can start supper, let the onions simmer, text a buddy, return to make dinner without burning the onions, and then complete dinner while conversing with our spouse. We’re also cognitively flexible when we swap communication patterns while chatting to a friend, then a daughter, then a coworker, or when we solve difficulties creatively, such as when you discover you don’t have enough onions to create the supper you want, and you need to come up with a different strategy.
It’s part of our executive function, which includes accessing memories and exhibiting self control. Poor executive function is a hallmark of ADHD in children and adults.
When we’re cognitively inflexible, we can’t focus on some of the tasks, we pick up the phone and scroll social media without thinking, forgetting what we’re doing while making dinner. In adults but especially in children, such cognitive inflexibility can wreak havoc with an individual’s ability to learn and accomplish tasks.
UNC scientists led by senior author Weili Lin, PhD, director of the UNC Biomedical Research Imaging Center (BRIC), wanted to find out what’s happening throughout the brain when executive function, particularly cognitive flexibility, is off line.
Lin and colleagues used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to study the neural flexibility of 180 children diagnosed with ADHD and 180 typically developing children.
“We observed significantly decreased neural flexibility in the ADHD group at both the whole brain and sub-network levels,” said Lin, the Dixie Boney Soo Distinguished Professor of Neurological Medicine in the UNC Department of Radiology, “particularly for the default mode network, attention-related networks, executive function-related networks, and primary networks of the brain involved in sensory, motor and visual processing.”
The researchers also found that children with ADHD who received medication exhibited significantly increased neural flexibility compared to children with ADHD who were not taking medication. Children on medication displayed neural flexibility that was not statistically different from the group of traditionally developing children.
Lastly, the researchers found that they could use fMRI to discover neural flexibility differences across entire brain regions between children with ADHA and the traditionally developing children.
“And we were able to predict ADHD severity using clinical measures of symptom severity,” Lin said. “We think our study demonstrate the potential clinical utility of neural flexibility to identify children with ADHD, as well as to monitor treatment responses and the severity of the condition in individual children.”