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New Study: ADHD Looks Different in Boys’ and Girls’ Brains

Often, girls go undiagnosed because their symptoms don’t reflect stereotypical ADHD behaviors. New research finds it’s because the brains of boys and girls with the condition function in distinct ways.

Posted Friday, October 23rd, 2015

Girls with ADHD are diagnosed later and less often than are boys, even though the condition is equally prevalent in both genders. Physicians, teachers, and parents often overlook ADHD in girls, who more commonly exhibit inattentive symptoms characterized by daydreaming, “spaciness,” or social trouble – quite different from the classic symptoms of hyperactive and risky behavior more often seen in boys.

A new study, published in the Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, finds that these differences may stem from the unique ways the condition manifests in the brains of girls versus boys. The study’s researchers examined the diffusion tensor MRI scans of 120 children between ages 8 and 12, looking for neurological differences in the brain. The researchers compared the scans of 30 boys with ADHD and 30 girls with ADHD to children of the same age, IQ, and handedness (left- or right-handed) without the condition.

They found gender-based variations in the part of the brain most affected by ADHD. In boys, the primary motor cortex, responsible for controlling basic motor functions was most impacted. For girls, the prefrontal region of the brain, responsible for controlling motivation and emotional regulation was most affected.

These findings don’t explain why the differences occur. But they may shed light on the varying problems males and females with ADHD encounter. Dr. Glen Elliott, chief psychiatrist and medical director of Children’s Health Council in Palo Alto, Caifornia, notes, “Boys with ADHD tend to get into trouble with externalizing problems, such as conduct disorder and reckless behaviors, while girls with ADHD have, in general, a more internalizing presentation, with depression, anxiety, eating disorders, and self-harm.” These distinct presentations could be related to the area of the brain most affected by ADHD.

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