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Big Data to be Used in ADHD Studies in New Zealand

Newly funded research in New Zealand will examine over 10,000 brain scans to identify the key brain processes underlying Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), with the overall aim of developing a reliable ‘biomarker’ to detect cognitive differences associated with the disorder.

Around 5% of New Zealand children have ADHD, a common neurodevelopmental disorder that can affect educational and employment attainment later in life. ADHD is also the most frequent diagnosis given to Māori children at mental health services. Yet, currently, there are no reliable biomarkers for the cognitive differences associated with ADHD, making it difficult to detect the disorder early as well as to assess treatment effectiveness and progress.

Now, with a research grant from the Health Research Council of New Zealand (HRC), a University of Otago psychology lecturer plans to address this issue by building a neuroimaging model that can predict ADHD-related cognitive deficits in children, by looking at detailed MRI brain scans.

ADHD currently is what clinicians can observe from the child, said the professor. Over the next three years, his team hopes to capture the characteristics of the disorder from a biological perspective. In the long run, having highly reliable and predictive biomarkers for cognitive differences in ADHD can be a game-changer, he added.

The team will be using a large dataset from more than 10,000 children from the United States (both with and without ADHD). This dataset includes brain images of various types, reflecting children’s brain activity, connectivity and anatomy, as well as children’s cognitive abilities based on various tasks.

His team will first examine the cognitive differences that occur in children diagnosed with ADHD (predetermined through cognition tests with participants). They will then apply specially designed machine-learning algorithms to accurately match up the brain images in the dataset with these cognitive differences. This will result in a brain-based ‘predictive score’ for each child in the dataset, that reflects their risk of developing ADHD-related cognitive deficits.

This brain-based predictive approach will then be tested for its applicability to New Zealand children who have been formally diagnosed with ADHD. Functional and structural MRI scans of participants in Dunedin will be taken, and the resulting scores matched against each child’s cognitive differences.

The availability of such big data along with modern computation techniques, such as machine learning, is the most exciting advances in psychiatry of our time and will help generate a novel platform for neuroimaging and psychiatry, said the professor. In future, one of the benefits of a reliable biomarker would be in testing the efficacy of novel treatments that target cognitive functions. The biomarkers will help researchers see if treatments affect cognitive areas of the brain, he added.

In the longer term, medical experts in New Zealand and elsewhere may potentially use the biomarker to aid in the diagnosis, early detection, and management of ADHD. In the mental health world, people do not usually use neuroimaging as a predictive tool. So, their team is aiming to start this trend, and it has only made possible by the recent availability of large-scale brain data and by the advances in machine learning.

As reported by OpenGov Asia, digital transformation efforts in New Zealand’s healthcare sector continues to make waves amid the COVID-19 pandemic, reports say. Ten months after the Health and Disability System Review was released in June 2020, it looks like its recommendations for overhauling the health system will be enacted and digital transformation will be a major component of the changes.

Minister of Health Andrew Little says the government will announce the new structure in April, describing it as the “blueprint for how the system will work in the future”. Digital technologies are one of five “key shifts” taking place. Greater innovation and digital options will see New Zealanders being able to access virtual diagnostic service, access primary care, and have better access to specialist care wherever they live.

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