The brains of children with neurological disorders seems to exhibit signs of neuroplastic changes, suggesting compensatory mechanisms for the disorder. This result opens up the possibility that brain training may be useful to help these patients control their symptoms.
The disorder studied was Tourette syndrome (TS), which usually become evident in early childhood or adolescence before the age of 18 years. The symptoms are involuntary movements (tics) as well as verbal tics or vocalizations. These tics are frequent, repetitive and rapid. Most cases of TS are mild and people lead productive lives.
Participants in the study (average age of 14) performed a motor task with high levels of manual conflict (they had to obey instructions such as press a left key in response to an arrow pointing to the right and vice-versa). Children with TS were much faster than control children (without TS) in such a task. This supports the idea that children with TS have more control over motor activity in general, due to the constant requirement to suppress their tics. Importantly children with the lowest response times were also the children with the least severe tics, indicating greater motor control.
Participants also underwent brain imaging. The microstructure of the white matter in the corpus callosum and the forceps minor (or FM, a white matter track that connects the lateral and medial areas of the prefrontal cortex) was different in the TS children compared to the control children. The authors concluded that these changes most likely reflected a functional adaptation to TS.
Interestingly, brain activity in an area of the right prefrontal cortex where FM connects was greater in the TS group compared to controls when performing the motor task task. The activity in this area was related to the response times in the task for the TS group but not for the controls.
In sum, white matter microstructure as well as activity in the prefrontal cortex strongly predicted performance in the children with Tourette syndrome but not controls.
These results provide evidence for compensatory neurological reorganization in children with Tourette syndrome. This suggests that brain training may be an option for children suffering from TS to help them reduce their symptoms, i.e. control their ticks.