Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) has been associated with dopaminergic imbalance and subtle volume decreases in the brain. Stimulants acutely enhance dopaminergic neurotransmission. Long-term effects of prolonged manipulation of the dopaminergic system on brain structure remain poorly understood; they could be beneficial or unfavorable and could be moderated by common genetic variants and/or age.
In a large observational ADHD cohort study (N = 316), the effects of cumulative stimulant treatment, genotype (for DAT1 haplotype and DRD4 variants), and treatment-by-genotype interactions on striatal, frontal, and hippocampal volumes and their interactions with age were evaluated.
No main effects of treatment were found. Associations between treatment and bilateral frontal and left hippocampal volume depended on DRD4 genotype and age. At a younger age and lower treatment levels, but not at a younger age and higher treatment levels, carriers of the DRD4 7R allele showed decreased frontal cortex volumes. At an older age, carriers and non-carriers showed smaller frontal volumes irrespective of treatment history. Left hippocampal volume was similar to that in controls at average treatment levels and increased with treatment only in carriers of the DRD4 risk allele and at a younger age. No interaction effects were found in the striatum.
Carriers of the DRD4 risk allele at a younger age might be sensitive to cortical remodeling after stimulant treatment. The cross-sectional nature of this study warrants cautious interpretation of age effects. The present findings, although of small effect size, might ultimately contribute to optimal care for individuals with ADHD.