Worth 1,000 Words: What a Brain Scan Reveals About ADHD

Written by Stephanie Watson | Published on September 16, 2013
Medically Reviewed by George T. Krucik, MD, MBA on September 16, 2013

Is brain imaging the best diagnostic tool for ADHD?

How ADHD Is Diagnosed

young boy with adhd

If your child has a sore throat, a quick throat swab can determine whether it’s strep. But learning whether your child has attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) is not as easy, because there isn’t one simple test for it. To diagnose ADHD, doctors ask teachers and parents whether the child has common ADHD symptoms, such as trouble concentrating or impulsivity. Some kids may also take verbal or written tests.

Challenges of Diagnosing ADHD

young girl crying

It can be hard to diagnose ADHD because not every child who has it is exactly the same. Some kids don’t have the typical behaviors, such as inattention. Others have different symptoms, like moodiness or obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). So some doctors have started to try another method. They are using high-tech brain scans to diagnose ADHD based on blood flow and brain wave activity. But do these scans really work?

Looking Inside the Brain

mri

Imaging scans are often used in medicine. They give doctors a view inside the body to help diagnose disease. An electrocardiogram (EKG) can tell whether the heart’s electrical activity is working normally. Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) can find injuries or blockages in organs like the kidneys and liver. Some doctors believe that, in much the same way, looking inside the brain can help them diagnose mental health conditions such as depression, autism, and ADHD.

What Brain Scans Show

brain scan

Scientists have used brain scans such as single-photon emission computed tomography (SPECT), positron emission tomography (PET), and functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) in the past to study differences in the brains of people with ADHD. For example, they have found that the brains of people with ADHD mature more slowly. Also, when people with ADHD perform a task, certain areas of their brain are more or less active compared to people who don’t have ADHD.

Using Scans to Diagnose ADHD

brain scan

Some doctors are also starting to use these kinds of scans to diagnose ADHD in children, and to see how well treatment is working. One test they use is the aforementioned SPECT. In this test, a radioactive substance is injected into the child. The substance travels to the brain and allows doctors to measure blood flow and brain activity, often while the child is performing a task. SPECT is not yet FDA-approved for diagnosing ADHD.

First Brain Wave Test

brain wave test

In July 2013, the FDA approved the first imaging test to diagnose children and teens with ADHD. It’s called the Neuropsychiatric EEG-Based Assessment Aid (NEBA) System. The test records the type and number of brain waves that nerve cells give off each second. It looks for brain wave patterns that are unique to kids with ADHD. The FDA says the device can help doctors confirm a diagnosis of ADHD.

Cautions About Brain Imaging

brain scan

Brain imaging has a lot of potential for diagnosing conditions like ADHD. Yet experts warn that these tests are still very new and there is much more to learn about them. Brain imaging tests are very expensive. A SPECT scan can cost more than $3,500. It also exposes children to radiation, and some experts say there isn’t enough evidence yet that it is an effective way to diagnose ADHD. 

The Future of Brain Imaging

doctor looking at brain scan

According to an article in Virtual Mentor, the American Medical Association’s ethics journal, a lot more research still needs to be done to confirm that brain imaging can diagnose mental health conditions. As more studies are done, doctors are learning more about the brain and how it differs in people with ADHD. What they learn could help them develop new and better imaging tests for ADHD and other mental health conditions.

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