ADHD and Attentional Interference from Competing Brain Networks

As prior research out of MIT (Go, Go, Go and Slow, Slow, Slow?), research out of Oregon Health Sciences University (OHSU) recently examined the coordination between two brain networks:  the task positive network(s) and the default mode network. These networks have largely opposite functions. In the first–task positive network(s)–there’s increased activity when we have a particular task that demands focus, letting us start and sustain attention on the task. In the second–the default mode network–there’s increased activity when we have no particular task to do. In adults without ADHD, per the MIT research, these two networks cooperate:  When it’s time for one to get on stage, the other fades into the background. In adults with ADHD, these networks are uncooperative and can compete for attention at the same time.

vibrations-545138_1920In children with ADHD, according to the results of the OHSU study (here), we see the same lack of coordination/cooperation between the networks as compared to children without ADHD, with this lack of coordination between networks increasing with age.

The result? Mixed signals. Attentional interference. Or, as the researchers put it, decreased attentional control. A reminder that behavior reflects brain activity, coordinated or otherwise.

Of interest, the OHSU researchers found that the brains of female children overall, with or without ADHD, showed more coordination between the opposing networks than the brains of male children.

Hidden Resources?

I know it’s a small sample size, but when running my group for 16 adults with ADHD this week, I was surprised that no one had heard of two remarkable resources relevant to those with ADHD.  Given this, I wondered how many other adults with ADHD are unaware of these resources…

The first is (here) for “learning and attention issues.”  What it offers is vast and, though, it’s targeted to parents of children and teens with ADHD, many adults with ADHD can find it of use.  Much of what’s suggested for teens will apply to adults, except for the context (e.g., work vs. school).  Also, given that 25-35% of parents of youth with ADHD are likely to have ADHD (source), parents using the site may want to use the recommendations for themselves as well as their children.

The second resource is JAN, Job Accommodation Network (here), which is all about workplace accommodations for employers and employees needing or wanting to know what the American with Disabilities Act (ADA) encompasses, including job coaches…even the possibility of free ones.  Who knew? From what I can tell, fewer than would have liked to have known.

I hope something here is of use to you.


ADHD Confusions

In the realm of ADHD research, OHSU professor Joel Nigg, Ph.D. is a major player.  He recently outlined the latest understanding of ADHD and three major confusions that have hurt this understanding (here).

Confusion #1:  It’s easy to fix.

Reality:  Long-term follow-up studies show that even the best “fixes” for ADHD barely change its long-term life outcomes.

Confusion #2:  It’s no big deal, anyway.

Reality:  Childhood ADHD has a strong association with future antisocial behavior, school and work failure, incarceration, and more, including serious injuries, shortening life spans.

Confusion #3:  It’s just inherited or it’s just a result of the environment.bees copy

Reality:  Its development appears to be a combination of uncommon gene mutations AND genetic factors common across psychiatric disorders, WITH the expression of these mutations and factors dependent on experience/environment (e.g., exposure to toxins/pollutants/contaminants).

The truth about us humans appears to be that we are just more complex and complicated than we’d like to believe sometimes.  This includes the reality that you, if you have ADHD, are more complex and complicated than it is.  It is a complex part of a complex you.

Mindfulness & Psychoeducation: “Everybody has won, and all must have prizes”?

The Dodo bird quote from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland came to mind as I read the results of a recent study.  A randomised, controlled fMRI study of the effects of mindfulness and psychoeducation on the working memory of adults with ADHD found they both worked (for more on working memory, see What predicts ADHD symptom reduction over time?).  art-creative-flying-17679.jpg

After 8 wks, both interventions were found to increase working memory performance and to increase task-related right parietal lobe brain activity to a similar degree (study here).  Although I’d like to see the results for a third group who received neither intervention (to rule out any placebo effect), the good news is that, under both conditions, working memory increased.  What would be interesting to see next is what happens when we combine mindfulness and psychoeducation.

MIT & NYU Study: Your Input Gatekeeper may be to Blame for your “Distractibility”

Some people with ADHD have a Ptchd1 gene mutation (more often these are males).  MIT and NYU scholars studied the Ptchd1 gene using mice and discovered that its loss may be the basis for symptoms of ADHD (as well as autism spectrum disorder and schizophrenia).



Because its loss most significantly affects the part of the brain responsible for keeping out sensory input that’s irrelevant.  This part of the brain is the thalamic reticular nucleus (TRN).

According to one of the senior authors of the study, the TRN determines what input reaches the cortex, where thinking and planning occurs.  “We receive all kinds of information from different sensory regions, and it all goes into the thalamus,” Feng says. “All this information has to be filtered. Not everything we sense goes through.”

Except when Ptchd1 mutations lead to TRN defects.  Then, more of everything can go through, leading to, you guessed it, being distracted and overwhelmed.

Can you imagine no filter or one that loosely functions? For some, there’s no need to.

Last year, the prestigious science journal Nature published the study.

Find a summary of it here.

Social Skills Training and ADHD: What Gives it the Best Shot at Working?

A short supply of self-restraint and other characteristics of ADHD can hurt relationships.  Social skills training is one of the interventions used to prevent relationship damage and increase relationship repair.  But does it work?

The results of a fresh-off-the-presses study on social skills training support Russell Barkley’s argument (Understanding ADHD) that skills presented and practiced away from real-life situations at the moment of trouble (e.g., as one is about to curse someone out) may be of little value.

Social skills training had “limited efficacy” according to Canadian researchers reviewing social skills training for kids and teens with ADHD (study here).  Nonetheless, they identified “two promising” ways to increase its usefulness.  First, offer “increased reinforcement and reminders of appropriate social behavior at the point of performance to youth with ADHD (e.g., in vivo, in real life peer situations as opposed to in the clinic).”  Second, encourage “peers to be more socially accepting and inclusive of youth with ADHD.”

In other words, go to the youths’ environments to work on what’s happening there (looking at both their actions and the actions of others toward them).

Maybe some day, we’ll send kids to mental health clinics less often and start going to them, where the action is.  And where science suggests we need to be.

What predicts ADHD symptom reduction over time?

In school-age children with ADHD, “visual spatial working memory maintenance” improvement predicts symptom improvement.  See the Oregon Health and Science University (OHSU) study here.


Let’s unpack this.

“Visual spatial working memory maintenance” is about maintaining mental representations of the arrangement of what you’ve just seen as the next sights show up.

It’s what you have to do when you drive.  You have to remember the positions of other cars and cyclists as you also attend to traffic lights and road signs.  Imagine you come to a light where you want to turn right.  To do this without an accident, you need to maintain the representation of the cyclist who was riding on your right side seconds before.

Air traffic controllers and pilots require especially good visual spatial working memory maintenance (for a brief, clear description of visual working memory from the University of Michigan, go here).

Now, hold on to this idea as we look at the OHSU study.

What the OHSU researchers found is that the children of their study who showed some ADHD symptom “recovery” or “remission” were the ones whose visual working memory maintenance improved as they developed.

It raises interesting questions, including whether to focus attention on developing this cognitive ability to reduce ADHD symptoms and whether a third factor contributes to both visual working memory maintenance improvement and ADHD symptom reduction.  Of note, the researchers examined how two other cognitive processes changed over time.  These processes were response inhibition (self-restraint, essentially) and delayed reward discounting (depreciating the value of a non-immediate reward).  Their changes were unrelated to symptom reduction.


Fidgeting: Spin vs. Science

My local Memorial weekend festival had fidget spinners for sale, ranging from $12 to over $20, advertised to help with ADHD, anxiety and more.  It left me wondering what we know about their effectiveness.  It turns out very little.  On my go-to research source, pubmed, I could find no single study on fidget spinners or their kin (cubes, etc.).  But NPR published two articles exactly two years apart, one on fidget spinners and one on fidgeting.  ball-1023984_1920

On May 14, 2017, NPR published an article on fidget spinners.

Essentially, the article quotes a Duke professor suggesting to stick with what’s known to work.

The professor points out that there’s no evidence that fidget spinners work.  Though it’s said, what seems perhaps buried or likely to be easily overlooked is that the reason there’s no evidence is that there’s actually no trustworthy research on them.  See here.

Meanwhile, two years earlier, on May 14, 2015, NPR published an article describing a small study that shows that children with ADHD performed better on tasks requiring concentration when they fidgeted.  (The children worked while on a swivel chair that they, of course, spun and moved.)

Overall, more movement meant better performance for these kids (kids without ADHD, on the other hand, did worse with movement).  The lead author, however, cautioned against both too little and too much movement.  See here.

Perhaps fidget spinners would fall into too much movement or the wrong kind (attracting eyes as well as fingers), but it’d be interesting to see some real research on them.

Blog at

Up ↑