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Modifiable Arousal in Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder and Its Etiological Association With Fluctuating Reaction Times

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)539-547
Number of pages9
JournalBiological Psychiatry: Cognitive Neuroscience and Neuroimaging
Issue number6
Early online date14 Jun 2016
Accepted/In press1 Jun 2016
E-pub ahead of print14 Jun 2016
PublishedNov 2016


King's Authors


BACKGROUND: Cognitive theories of attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) propose that high within-subject fluctuations of cognitive performance in ADHD, particularly reaction time (RT) variability (RTV), may reflect arousal dysregulation. However, direct evidence of arousal dysregulation and how it may account for fluctuating RTs in ADHD is limited. We used skin conductance (SC) as a measure of peripheral arousal and aimed to investigate its phenotypic and familial association with RTV in a large sample of ADHD and control sibling pairs.

METHODS: Adolescents and young adults (N = 292), consisting of 73 participants with ADHD and their 75 siblings, and 72 controls and their 72 siblings, completed the baseline (slow, unrewarded) and fast-incentive conditions of a RT task, while SC was simultaneously recorded.

RESULTS: A significant group-by-condition interaction emerged for SC level (SCL). Participants with ADHD had decreased SCL, compared with controls, in the baseline condition but not the fast-incentive condition. Baseline SCL was negatively associated with RTV, and multivariate model fitting demonstrated that the covariance of SCL with RTV, and of SCL with ADHD, was mostly explained by shared familial effects.

CONCLUSIONS: ADHD is associated with decreased, but modifiable, tonic peripheral arousal. A shared familial cause underlies the relationship between arousal and RTV and between arousal and ADHD. Given the malleability of SCL, if our findings are replicated, it warrants further exploration as a potential treatment target for ADHD.

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