Cortical morphology as a shared neurobiological substrate of attention-deficit/hyperactivity symptoms and executive functioning: a population-based pediatric neuroimaging study

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Attention-deficit/hyperactivity symptoms have repeatedly been associated with poor cognitive functioning. Genetic studies have demonstrated a shared etiology of attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and cognitive ability, suggesting a common underlying neurobiology of ADHD and cognition. Further, neuroimaging studies suggest that altered cortical development is related to ADHD. In a large population-based sample we investigated whether cortical morphology, as a potential neurobiological substrate, underlies the association between attention-deficit/hyperactivity symptoms and cognitive problems.


The sample consisted of school-aged children with data on attention-deficit/hyperactivity symptoms, cognitive functioning and structural imaging. First, we investigated the association between attention-deficit/hyperactivity symptoms and different domains of cognition. Next, we identified cortical correlates of attention-deficit/hyperactivity symptoms and related cognitive domains. Finally, we studied the role of cortical thickness and gyrification in the behaviour–cognition associations.


We included 776 children in our analyses. We found that attention-deficit/hyperactivity symptoms were associated specifically with problems in attention and executive functioning (EF; b = −0.041, 95% confidence interval [CI] −0.07 to −0.01, p = 0.004). Cortical thickness and gyrification were associated with both attention-deficit/hyperactivity symptoms and EF in brain regions that have been previously implicated in ADHD. This partly explained the association between attention-deficit/hyperactivity symptoms and EF (bindirect = −0.008, bias-corrected 95% CI −0.018 to −0.001).


The nature of our study did not allow us to draw inferences regarding temporal associations; longitudinal studies are needed for clarification.


In a large, population-based sample of children, we identified a shared cortical morphology underlying attention-deficit/hyperactivity symptoms and EF.

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