Wandering minds and ADHD: Brittany Alperin unpacks the relationship

How the mind wanders in people with ADHD and how mind wandering is related to impairment — this is the focus of Brittany Alperin’s research. Brittany is a Ph.D. candidate mentored by Joel Nigg and Sarah Karalunas in the School of Medicine ADHD and Attention Research program.

What are you working on and why is it a big deal?

All of our minds wander, but not in the same ways. As researchers and clinicians, we don’t know a lot about that. Sometimes it can even be a good thing — like for brainstorming and planning. But when someone’s mind wanders too often or to negative topics it can have a detrimental effect.

We know that people with ADHD mind wander more than people who don’t have ADHD, but we don’t know if they mind wander in the same way.

It’s important to remember that ADHD isn’t just one big homogenous condition. One of the big goals of our lab is to break down ADHD into manageable pieces so we can better treat the individual. Understanding the specifics of mind wandering can help with that.

What’s been your most exciting moment in discovery?

Right now I’m excited about seeing the data from my research starting to emerge. I just started collecting data from our study participants — I have 20 participants out of 80. But one of the preliminary trends is that people with ADHD tend to mind wander about several things at one time. Their thoughts are more variable.

It’s one thing when your mind wanders to a presentation you’re going to give tomorrow and another thing entirely when your mind wanders very often and to a lot of things at one time. Or goes to negative or painful topics.

With ADHD you might be thinking about the presentation you’re going to give and what you ate this morning and that the room is really warm and lots of different things at the same time. This is something we hypothesized.

What’s your day-to-day life as a researcher look like?

Brittany Alperin studies how the mind wanders in adults with ADHD and why it matters.

Participant visits are a big part of my day. I collect data for my own study and help with visits for other studies – especially when they involve EEGs, since that’s one of my areas of specialty.

For my own research, I measure the frequency and content of mind wandering. I use EEG to measure the brain waves of the participants while they are doing tasks and answering questions about what they’re thinking.

I ask study participants to do a really boring task and then every few minutes I ask where their minds have wandered: “Were you thinking about the task or something else; one thing or lots of things; something positive or negative?” I look at their brain waves and the relationship between what their reporting and what their brain is doing.

I work closely with Sarah Karalunas in the EEG lab and with Joel Nigg in his lab. The Nigg lab has so much data on kids with ADHD — 8 years of cardiac information, DNA and saliva samples, results from EEG and MRI tests, and cognitive testing. There is also clinical data and reporting from parents and teachers.

It’s a privilege to be here with so much data and to be able to come up with questions that I’m interested in and writing papers.

In the Lab

In the Lab looks at the people in the laboratories — and in clinics — who help make OHSU such a vibrant research institution. In each post, researchers and clinician scientists describe their current work and answer the same three questions. Have someone you want to see featured? Email Casey Williamson.