Neely recipient of NARSD Young Investigator Award

ADHD is the most commonly diagnosed mental health disorder in children, and a majority of these children have motor deficits. A Penn State researcher will examine brain activity in young adults with ADHD to determine how it affects their motor control in a newly funded project.

Kristina Neely, assistant professor of kinesiology, was awarded the National Alliance for Research on Schizophrenia and Depression (NARSAD) Young Investigator Award from the Brain & Behavior Research Foundation, which will allow her to continue her work in understanding how ADHD, or Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, affects the motor system.

“ADHD is one of the most frequently studied psychiatric disorders, yet we don’t know why so many who are diagnosed also have motor impairments,” said Neely. “Additionally, little work has focused on young adults with ADHD. Understanding ADHD in this demographic is important because it significantly impacts academic, social, and vocational success.”

Neely will examine brain activity in male and female young adults ages 18-25 with ADHD, both on and off of their stimulant medication. Participants will perform a visually guided hand-grip task while in a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scanner at Penn State’s Social, Life, and Engineering Science Center (SLEIC), part of part of Penn State’s Social Science Research Institute (SSRI). Neely will compare her findings to a group of young adults without ADHD to assess how stimulant medication affects the motor system of young adults with ADHD.

“Previous research has shown that gross motor skills improve with stimulant medication, but it is unclear how stimulant medication affects brain activity and motor performance during a hand-grip task that requires fine motor control and the integration of visual feedback,” Neely explained. “This knowledge will contribute to a better understanding of how stimulant medications work.”

In Neely’s earlier work, her research team demonstrated that adults with ADHD have difficulty maintaining force output without visual feedback compared to healthy controls. In addition, her team recently reported that young adults with ADHD have difficulty inhibiting force production in a hand-grip task. The work funded by NARSAD represents the first time Neely will be able to simultaneously collecting brain and behavior data while undergoing testing in this population.

“Using the fMRI, we’ll be able to detect subtle differences in force control and the associated brain activity. This work has the potential to aid in diagnosis, as previous investigations of motor control in ADHD have not provided any insight into underlying neural mechanisms,” said Neely. “This work is a step toward the development of better diagnostic tools and therapeutic strategies to improve outcomes in young adults.”

The NARSAD Young Investigator Grant provides support for the most promising young scientists conducting neurobiological research, enabling promising investigators to either extend research fellowship training or begin careers as independent research faculty.

Neely is a fellow in the Penn State Clinical and Translational Science Institute (CTSI), and is funded by a CTSI Mentored Training Award. Since 2014, Neely has collaborated with SSRI co-funded faculty Cynthia Huang-Pollock and Koraly Perez-Edgar, both associate professors of psychology, on her research investigating the neurobiology of ADHD in young adults.