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ADHD and Alcoholism: The Corpus Callosum (part 1)

Posted Jan 22 2009 6:54pm
In our last post, we discussed some of the ties between ADHD and eating disorders such as bulimia. In this post, we will begin the first of a multi-part investigation on the connection between ADHD and alcoholism. In this session, we will see how these two disorders are both tied to improper function in a key brain region known as the corpus callosum.
Note the relative position of the corpus callosum in the diagram below (source of image here ):




A quick aside: Note the proximity of this corpus callosum brain region to the cingulate gyrus (labeled "Gyrus cinguli" in the diagram above), a region which we discussed in a recent post onattentional control. The cingulate region can be thought of as the brain's "gear shifter". If underactive, it leads to consistent lack of focus on one thought or task (a hallmark characteristic of ADHD), if overactive, the cingulate can result in overfocus (a characteristic of obsessive compulsive disorder, or OCD).

Returning to the corpus callosum area of the brain, which is layered inside the cingulate gyrus, we can see some sub-regions of note. These include the genu and the splenium. There is also a small region (not listed on the diagram above), called the isthmus, which is just to the left of the splenium. Of these regions, pay close attention to the isthmus, genu, and corpus callosum.

Note: the classification of these brain region sometimes varies, some methods classify the isthmus and genu as part of the corpus callosum, while others group them as seperate elements. No need to get any further into specifics, but when I refer to "corpus callosum" in the context of this post, I am referring to the region distinct from the isthmus, genu and splenium.

The corpus callosum is primarily responsible for connecting and integrating information from the left and right hemispheres of the brain. It is composed of millions of individual fibers and is necessary for the integration and processing of sensory information and expressing this information through verbal language. This is one of the later-developing regions of the brain, and continues to develop and become more efficient during adolescence (and even into early adulthood). Studies have shown that this prolonged developmental process leaves brain regions like the corpus callosum more prone to improper development. One of the reasons young children have trouble expressing visual images verbally is because speech control is typically on the left side of the brain and visual imaging and imagination is typically on the right.

Improper development of this corpus callosum region can lead to quirks such as split brain. Additionally, it has been reported that development of this brain region can be impeded by prenatal alcohol exposure and is entirely missing in around seven percent of children with fetal alcohol syndrome. Additionally, chronic alcohol abuse can result in thinning in the corpus callosum region.

In addition to the inhibition of this key brain region due to alcohol exposure listed above, it appears that there may be an underlying factor at play for this region for both ADHD and alcoholism. A reduction in size in the corpus callosum, genu and isthmus has been associated with ADHD in both children and adults. A study done by Venkatasubramanian and coworkers found a connection between smaller volumes in these same three regions of the brain and an increased risk of developing alcoholism.

Note that a reduction in size of the corpus callosum has been linked with a decreased functional ability in this region as well. This includes the processing of information between the left and right hemispheres of the brain in processes such as integrating information of visual images obtained from both eyes.

In addition to its role in expressing and processing ideas and thoughts from both sides of the brain, the corpus callosum is also integral in coordinating movements in different parts of the body. This includes governing motor inhibition (restricting unwanted or inappropriate movements) across the body. Interestingly, individuals with ADHD have been shown to have a decreased ability in utilizing the corpus callosum to control movements, which is often tied to the impulsive behavior of ADHD individuals with their actions (such as constantly grabbing or playing with objects at inappropriate times).

The corpus callosum is not the only brain region thought to be involved with both ADHD and alcoholism. For example, the prefrontal cortex (the brain region behind the forehead), which we have discussed extensively in other posts, has repeatedly been found to be underactive for individuals with ADHD. Additionally, Schweinsburg and coworkers found a decrease in activation of the prefrontal cortex correlates with a higher risk in suffering from alcoholism.

In the next few posts, we will examine some of the genes thought to be underlying factors in both ADHD and alcohol abuse. Additionally, we will examine some of the numbers to get a better understanding of the magnitude of overlap between the two disorders. Finally, we will examine some of the "warning sign" behaviors which youngsters might display before the onset of alcoholism occurs.

However, in the next entry, we will examine whether there is a hereditary factor in place surrounding brain volume, as well the prevalence of expressed outward symptoms of ADHD, and how these are both associated with an increased risk in developing alcoholism later in life.
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