Brain connectivity increases as children with Tourette Syndrome suppress their ‘tics’

PHILADELPHIA, Pa. — The neurodevelopmental disorder Tourette Syndrome is most synonymous with verbal or physical outbursts. Doctors usually refer to these occurrences as “tics,” and most Tourette patients are able to suppress or stop themselves from acting out their tics for a certain period of time before the urge becomes too great. Now, a new study is uncovering the neurological machinations occurring while a Tourette patient suppresses their tics.

“Tic suppression is an important feature of Tourette syndrome. Understanding how someone may temporarily gain control over their tics may inform several research areas in Tourette syndrome. Yet, brain correlates of tic suppression have not been studied extensively, especially in children,” says study senior author Denis Sukhodolsky, PhD, an associate professor at the Yale Child Study Center at the Yale School of Medicine, in a press release.

Mapping out what makes the brain ‘tic’

Researchers used a non-evasive technique known as high-density electroencephalography (hdEEG) to measure the brain activity of 72 adolescents, between eight and 16 years-old, diagnosed with Tourette Syndrome. This process helped study authors learn much more about functional connectivity between brain regions while a child suppresses their tic.

Understanding brain mechanisms associated with successful coping in disorders such as Tourette syndrome opens up opportunities for developing targeted treatments to enhance the innate self-control that normally emerges as the brain matures,” adds Cameron Carter, MD, Editor of the journal Biological Psychiatry: Cognitive Neuroscience and Neuroimaging.

Study authors monitored each participating adolescent’s brain activity as they were “ticcing freely” and while they suppressed their tics. From there, connectivity between various brain regions during both activities was assessed. The investigation revealed that connectivity between multiple brain regions increased while the children suppressed their tics.

“Some of these regions are part of the default mode network, an array of brain regions engaged during internal thought processes such as daydreaming,” notes first author Simon Morand-Beaulieu, PhD.

Kids’ brains learn to control tics over time

It’s also worth mentioning that functional brain connectivity as kids blocked their tics appeared to positively correlate with age. This indicates that tic suppressing brain networks experience developmental changes in response to tics.

“This increase in functional connectivity as children mature is consistent with increasing tic suppression capacities developing into adolescence as well as a better awareness of the sensory phenomena accompanying tics,” Dr. Morand-Beaulieu comments.

By identifying the brain mechanisms responsible for controlling tics, these findings may one day help inform new therapeutic options for Tourette patients.

“It will be important to assess whether the same mechanism plays a role in a more structured intervention to decrease tic severity, such as behavioral therapy for Tourette syndrome,” Dr. Sukhodolsky concludes.

The study is published in Biological Psychiatry: Cognitive Neuroscience and Neuroimaging.