Thursday, January 1, 2009

Genes and ADHD Brainwave Patterns

There is mounting evidence surrounding the genetic basis for ADHD. Some studies place the blame on genes, as heritability of ADHD may be as high as 75 percent. Some of the specific ADHD genes under investigation can be seen here.

EEG has been a hot topic of discussion as of late for individuals suffering from attentional difficulties. Short for electroencephalography, EEG is an electrical measuring device used to monitor brainwave patterns and frequencies. In general, the higher the frequencies, the more "alert" the individual is:

Some common states and their EEG ranges can be found below. Note that the numbers are in hertz or cycles/second

Delta: 1-4, sleep
Theta: 5-7, daydreaming
Alpha: 8-12, relaxation (watching TV)
SMR (Sensorimotor Rhythm): 12-15, Focused relaxation, live sporting events, easy video games
Beta: 13-24- concentration
High Beta: over 25-30, anxiety and related symptoms

Individuals with ADD or ADHD often (not surprisingly) have more difficulty staying in the Beta range and are seen excessively in the Theta state. EEG programs are available in which the individual attempts to remain in a beta state for as long as possible. Essentially, they "train" the brain to hold a higher frequency, often through some type of interactive computer game which stops when beta frequencies are no longer maintained.

To be perfectly honest, I know relatively little about the intricacies of this procedure. However, based on what I've gathered so far on the subject, this practice seems to have had a moderate amount of success. Some consider it to be too costly or over-prescribed, while others swear by the results. Based on what I've read, typical treatment is often comprised of weekly interactive EEG treatments for a period of 1-2 years. At this point, I am not in a position to give advice on this alternative treatment measure for ADHD and related disorders, but I do find at least the theory behind it to be highly plausible.

Returning to the genetic basis surrounding EEG measurements for a moment, we see that the degree of heritability is thought to be highest somewhere around the high alpha and low beta states (right around the Sensorimotor Rhythm region mentioned above) and begins to decrease at both higher (high Beta) and lower (Delta and Theta) states. Given the difficulties of achieving a consistent Beta state for ADHD'ers, we can see that these difficulties may fall right in the eye of this storm of heritability and genetic predisposition.

A comparative study was done examining EEG patterns of un-medicated children with ADHD who had siblings or parents with the disorder. This study measured baseline brainwave frequencies and brainwave patterns when the subjects underwent a Continuous Performance Task.

In a nutshell, Continuous Performance Task tests measure both inattention and impulsivity, both of which are landmark ADHD characteristics.

How the Continuous Performance Task test typically works:
An individual may be asked to press a computer button only after seeing a specific letter or shape. If that letter or shape is shown only rarely, then the individual enters a "bored" state (which is often connected to Theta activity, which is typically higher in ADHD individuals to begin with). As a result, he or she may space out and miss when the letter or shape is finally presented on the screen. This "miss" is called an error of omission, and is reflective of inattention.

On the flip side, if the letter or shape is constantly being shown, the individual may attempt to "guess" when it is next displayed and push the response button prematurely. This is an error of commission, and is more connected to impulsivity.

Correlations in EEG patterns between siblings was much higher for measures taken in a state of cognitive activation (i.e. when undergoing the continuous performance task listed above) than EEG baseline patterns. This suggests that ADHD genetic differences are much more pronounced during cognitively challenging situations, than during rest. In other words, similarities in brainwave patterns of ADHD siblings are greater during cognitive tasks than while at rest.
  • The only statistically significant EEG pattern seen between siblings at the resting or baseline state was that of the theta state in the frontal region of the brain. This is interesting to note, because this region, which includes a brain domain called the prefrontal cortex, which is thought to be one of the major "hot spots" for chemical imbalances in an ADHD brain.

  • During these performance tasks, which involve periods of concentration, it was noted that correlations between sibling brain wave patterns were extremely high; higher than a cause which was purely genetic would indicate (since non-identical twin siblings only share half of the same genetic material). This suggests that among these siblings, both genetics and overlapping environmental factors are both at work.

  • While all brain wave states during concentration tasks were thought to be genetically connected, it appears that changes in the alpha state (and somewhat with the theta state)were the most pronounced. This was believed to be due to an overall decrease in these overall frequency states during concentration tasks, which suggests that in order to maintain concentration for a cognitive tasks, the brains of these individuals were forced to work "harder" by operating at a higher frequency (Beta) state. To overstate the obvious, this supports the idea that ADHD brains must work harder to maintain an attention span by bumping up to a higher state.

  • One note of particular interest: It appears that genetics (i.e. having at least one parent with the disorder) plays a much greater role in errors of omission (see description near the top of this post) than in errors of commission. Since errors of omission are more associated with inattentive behavior and errors of commission are more associated with impulsive behavior, it suggests that genes are more likely involved in individuals who are more of the predominantly inattentive ADHD subtype than they are for the hyperactive-impulsive ADHD subytpe.

  • While genetics appeared to be connected to overlaps in brain wave states and how hard the brains of ADHD siblings had to work to maintain attention, there was little statistical evidence linking actual cognitive task performance to family-based genetic heritability. In other words, while the brains of these children with ADHD had to work harder to complete the cognitive task, the overall abilities to actually perform the task were not thought to be tied to familial inheritance (such as from the parents).

  • This above point suggests two things: 1.) Individuals with ADHD are able to over-ride genetic predispositions and maintain an attention span, albeit at a higher cost, and 2.) EEG is a powerful diagnostic tool that is a more accurate predictor of genetic heritability of ADHD than are physically detectable symptoms (such as observed bouts of inattention, hyperactivity or distractibility).
While these findings are encouraging, it is important to note that EEG-based treatment of ADHD is still in a period of relative infancy. However, like the experience of watching a duck on the water (who appears to be calmly floating along while his legs are thrashing below the water's surface) EEG offers the unique ability to detect the "thrashing below the surface" of an ADHD brain. The studies above strongly suggest that there may be a much greater genetic component to this thrashing than we previously expected.