ADHD in ChildrenWhen children have attention deficit hyperactive disorder (ADHD), how do clinicians determine the best course of treatment? For the three to seven percent of school-aged children in the United States who have ADHD, the only way to truly assess whether ADHD medications will work is an invasive assessment that measures the brain’s dopamine levels. However, new research from the Medical University of South Carolina may change that. Researchers there have used a non-invasive procedure to quantify brain iron levels, which may lead a method of guiding diagnosis and treatment for people with ADHD.

The study population consisted of 22 children and adolescents with ADHD and 27 typically developing children without ADHD. The researchers administered a particular type of MRI called magnetic field correlation (MFC) imaging. This relatively new MRI technique allowed the researchers to scan specifically for levels of iron in the brain.

ADHD is often treated with psychostimulant medications like Ritalin. These drugs affect levels of dopamine, a neurotransmitter, in the brain. Dopamine alone cannot affect the brain; iron is required for dopamine’s synthesis. The researchers measured iron to assess whether iron levels could be a pathway to reading the brain’s dopamine levels.

They discovered that the 12 children with ADHD who had never taken medication for the disorder had significantly lower levels of iron in their brains than both the control group and the other ten children with ADHD who had taken psychostimulants before. However, there were no significant differences between the groups when measuring relaxation rates or serum measures—typical methods of measuring dopamine levels.

The research team is optimistic that magnetic field correlation may offer a non-invasive method for guiding ADHD diagnosis and appropriate courses of treatment. More tests will have to be done to find out if the results are maintained in larger trials, but MFC might help doctors know in advance who will receive the most benefit from psychostimulants.

“This method enables us to exploit inherent biomarkers in the body and indirectly measure dopamine levels without needing any contrast agent,” said Vitria Adisetiyo, Ph.D., postdoctoral research fellow at the Medical University of South Carolina and lead study author.

This research was presented at the annual meeting of the Radiological Society of North America (RSNA).

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