Attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) is often associated with behavioral issues in children. They can’t sit still, and they don’t listen to instructions. But children with the disorder may want to sit and pay attention but struggle to do so because of the way their brains work.
ADHD is classified as a neurodevelopmental disorder, which means that it’s related to how the brain develops during childhood. Research has indicated that people with ADHD have differences in brain structure and function that affects cognition. However, the brain is complex, and it’s often difficult to pinpoint cognitive and neurodevelopmental problems. And, there’s still more research to be done.
So, where in the brain does ADHD take its effects on children and adults who have it? Learn more about the way this disorder affects the brain.
One of the most significant findings of studies about the brain and ADHD is the effect it has on size and structure. Or rather, the effect that size and structure have on the development of ADHD.
One major area where structural anomalies seem to play a role in ADHD is in the frontal lobe. The frontal lobe is the part of the brain that controls executive functions. Executive functions involve active, conscious thinking like memory, problem-solving, language, decision-making, and planning. It’s also responsible for some passive skills like motivation, judgment, and time perception.
In simple terms, the frontal lobe is the part of the brain that helps you do work and complete tasks. Research has found that this part of the brain is smaller in people with ADHD. However, in some cases, this is a matter of delayed development, and the frontal lobe in people with ADHD grows to a normal size later.
It’s unclear how a smaller frontal lobe affects your executive functions. But, if it indicates delayed development, it may mean that you struggle with certain cognitive tasks while your peers don’t seem to have a problem.
Dopamine is an important neurotransmitter in the brain that’s vital for balanced brain chemistry. Neurotransmitters are chemical messengers in the brain that are sent between nerve cells to communicate between different parts of the brain and body.
Dopamine is a chemical related to reward and motivation. It’s designed to encourage you to complete tasks and repeat healthy activities. It’s also important for a general feeling of well-being and a balanced mood. Dopamine is also tied to feelings of alertness and excitement.
One theory as to the effects of ADHD is that it causes a chronically under-aroused or under-stimulated brain. When someone with ADHD performs a task, they may struggle to resist distractions and focus on what they’re doing. This may be because of a certain type of dopamine called tonic dopamine. Tonic dopamine is the chemical that’s constantly present in your system, providing a steady stream of reward through minor tasks. Phasic dopamine is when the chemical is released in response to stimulation.
People with ADHD may have a low level of tonic dopamine, which makes you generally feel unmotivated while doing a boring task. To compensate, your nerve cells may release more phasic dopamine than normal in response to some minor stimulation.
For example, if a person with ADHD is studying for an exam, they may struggle to stay on task or feel motivated to continue. When some friends start talking in the hallway, phasic dopamine fires, and it becomes almost irresistible to join the conversation. These dopamine levels put people with ADHD at a disadvantage in the fight against distractions.
If ADHD is a product of structural and functional differences in the brain, how can it be treated? Despite the complexity of the brain and ADHD, many treatment options are available, including medications and psychotherapeutic options.
ADHD can be treated with cognitive behavioral therapy and other therapies that can help you identify ways to cope with the disorder and learn life skills that will allow you to adapt to life with ADHD. Medications are commonly prescribed to treat symptoms like concentration difficulties.
Stimulants like amphetamines can help increase dopamine levels so that you aren’t compelled to seek chemical rewards from distractions and other sources. Stimulants work by either preventing your nerve cells from removing dopamine from your system or by triggering the release of dopamine into your system. This can help increase the level of tonic dopamine so that your brain doesn’t feel the need to release phasic dopamine in high amounts. Overall, this helps facilitate more balanced brain chemistry.
Though ADHD is a complex disorder that affects the brain, it is treatable. With therapies and medications, you can live a productive life. However, if you or someone you know is struggling with focus or other ADHD symptoms, it’s important to seek help when you need it.
Getting an accurate diagnosis and treatment options are key to better mental health. ADHD can negatively impact multiple areas of your life if it’s left untreated. Learn more about ADHD and how it can be treated to take your first step toward relief from troublesome symptoms.
American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry. (2017, February). ADHD & the Brain. Retrieved from https://www.aacap.org/AACAP/Families_and_Youth/Facts_for_Families/FFF-Guide/ADHD_and_the_Brain-121.aspx
CESAR. (n.d.). Amphetamines. Retrieved from http://www.cesar.umd.edu/cesar/drugs/amphetamines.asp
National Institute of Mental Health. (2019, September). Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder. Retrieved from https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/topics/attention-deficit-hyperactivity-disorder-adhd/index.shtml
Psychology Today. (n.d.). What Is Dopamine? Retrieved from https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/basics/dopamine
Sikström, S., & Söderlund, G. (2007, October). Stimulus-dependent dopamine release in attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/17907872