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Growth charts are being used to examine the maturation of functional networks in patients' brains, in order to determine whether they have an increased risk for neuro-cognitive abnormalities.

Doctors, such as general practitioners and paediatricians, routinely use growth charts to measure children's height, weight and head circumferences in order to exclude any abnormalities. Researchers at the University of Michigan were wondering whether information from these growth charts could also help doctors to examine the maturation of function networks in the brain, to look for neuro-cognitive pathologies such as attention impairment.

The researchers wanted to study alterations in the intrinsic connectivity networks (ICN), which are important units of functional organization of the brain, and are associated with attention performance and which undergo substantial maturation during youth.

What was assessed in this study, was the association between deviations from normal growth chart patterns and the diagnosis of attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).

How the study was performed

The study was done by analyzing data that was publicly available from a sample of young patients who had certain assessments performed on them, including neuro-imaging. The sample group included 519 young people, with an average age of 16 and, of those, 25 of them completed the criteria for ADHD.

According to the findings made, deviations from normal maturation patterns of network growth of the brain seemed to be linked with the diagnosis of ADHD and sustained attention performance which was impaired. 

Some limitations were noted by the researchers such as that their findings needed to be replicated. The study itself introduced a novel brain network growth charting method for the prediction of attention impairment issues, but further research into the use of neuro-imaging to discover patterns of dysmaturation of the brain could provide early and objective findings of neuro-cognitive related disorders.

The clinical significance

For many years, growth charts were used to assess whether children and youths had any physical developmental issues. Now, a brain network charting methods exists where patients can be assessed for an increased risk in developing clinically relevant conditions such as impaired sustained attention disorders.

Executive dysfunction in clinical populations

A wide range of functions of the executive system of the brain relies on many neuro-cognitive processes. Any severe executive dysfunction, which is unrelated to any disorder or disease, is defined as dysexecutive syndrome and often occurs due to damage to the frontal lobes of the cerebrum.

Executive dysfunction is then associated with many psychiatric conditions, which often show similar symptoms to dysexecutive syndrome. This issue has been researched in relation to conditions such as psychotic disorders, cognitive developmental disorders, affective disorders, neuro-degenerative disorders, conduct disorders and acquired brain injury.

These conditions could include the following:

  • Schizophrenia - a mental disorder where patients are detached from reality due to their perceived ideas and thoughts becoming disrupted.
  • Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) - this condition is characterized by abnormal or impaired development of communication and social interaction with others, as well as a decreased interest in activities.
  • Bipolar mood disorder - a mood disorder which is characterized by fluctuations in mood from manic phases to depressive episodes which can alternate quickly (over days/weeks) or slowly (over weeks/months).
  • Parkinson's disease - involves damage to the subcortical structures of the brain, and is associated with problems with thought and memory processes as well as difficulties with movement.
  • ADHDa disorder which is characterized by hyperactivity, inattention and impulsivity which can persist from childhood through to adulthood.
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