While people with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) show exhibit various symptoms of the condition, chief among them would certainly be that for which it’s named: inattention. Even when they seem like they may be paying attention, there’s a good chance that they aren’t. And although it may become obvious to some clinicians that these people have the condition, others might not be so sure. So, in an effort to improve treatment and diagnosis, two psychologists have just pinpointed a certain pattern of brain activity that may indicate whether someone has ADHD.

After conducting a set of experiments on a group of 47 students, with an average age was 21, who all wore an electrode cap to monitor brain activity. Each of them underwent a battery of tests looking at their brain activity when they had to pay attention, how distracted they got, and whether or not they were able to suppress the intruding stimuli.  

The researchers found that the part of the brain responsible for helping them ignore visual distractions had to become active by their own will. While it sounds obvious, the researchers asserted that this was the first study to look at focus from a different perspective — most “contemporary ideas of attention highlight brain processes that are involved in picking out relevant objects from the visual field,” said doctoral student John Gaspar, lead author of the study from Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, in a press release. Essentially, Gaspar said that studies have looked at how to focus harder but not at how to ignore distractions.

The findings open up new avenues for research in ADHD treatment, as most doctors try to help people with the disorder focus harder on the important things. And with technology providing an onslaught of distracting devices, from smartphones to tablets, their work — as well as others — will be put to the test. “Distraction is a leading cause of injury and death in driving and other high-stakes environments,” said John McDonald, an associate professor of psychology at the university, in the press release. “There are individual differences in the ability to deal with distraction. New electronic products are designed to grab attention. Suppressing such signals takes effort, and sometimes people can’t seem to do it.”

Future studies, the two researchers said, will look into how the brain deals with distraction and why some people are better at suppressing distractions than others.

Source: McDonald J, Gaspar J. Suppression of Salient Objects Prevents Distraction in Visual Search. The Journal of Neuroscience. 2014.