Children with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) have delayed cortical maturation, evidenced by regionally specific slower cortical thinning. However, the relationship between cortical maturation and attention capacities in typically developing children is unknown. This study examines cortical thickness correlates of inattention symptoms in a large sample of healthy children.
Data from 357 healthy subjects (6.0–18.4 years of age) were obtained from the NIH MRI Study of Normal Brain Development. In cross-sectional analysis (first visit, n = 257), Child Behavior Checklist Attention Problems (AP) scores were linearly regressed against cortical thickness, controlling for age, gender, total brain volume, and site. For longitudinal data (up to three visits, n = 357/672 scans), similar analyses were performed using mixed-effects linear regressions. Interactions of AP with age and gender were tested.
A cross-sectional “AP by age” interaction was found in bilateral orbito-frontal cortex, right inferior frontal cortex, bilateral ventromedial prefrontal cortex, bilateral dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, and several additional attention network regions. The interaction was due to negative associations between AP and thickness in younger subjects (6–10 years of age) that gradually disappeared over time secondary to slower cortical thinning. Similar trends were present in longitudinal analyses.
Higher AP scores were associated with thinner cortex at baseline and slower cortical thinning with aging in multiple areas involved in attention processes. Similar patterns have been identified in ADHD, suggesting a dimensional component to the link between attention and cortical maturation. The identified association between cortical maturation and attention in healthy development will help to inform studies of neuroimaging biomarkers of ADHD.
Keywords: attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, Child Behavior Checklist, attention, cortical thickness, magnetic resonance imaging