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How Does An ADHD Brain Differ From A NON-ADHD Brain?

Updated: Nov 16, 2021

What is ADHD?

Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) is a neurodevelopmental disorder that is believed to affect 1 in 10 children making this one of the most common childhood disorders in the US.

Over time, many studies reveal biological differences in the ADHD brain, compared to the non ADHD brain, that can affect a child’s development. Although ADHD does not influence intelligence, it can diminish one’s ability to keep organized, regulate attention and emotions, as well as increase hyperactivity and impulsivity. The cause of the condition is a complex answer with many different variables.

What are signs or symptoms of ADHD?

  • Forgetfulness

  • Misplacing important items

  • Difficulty with organization

  • Makes careless mistakes in school or everyday activities

  • Fidgets or has trouble sitting still

  • Loses interest easily in long term activities or projects

  • Can’t hold attention for long

  • Interrupts frequently / has trouble waiting for their turn

What causes someone to have ADHD?

No one knows exactly what causes a person to have ADHD but some researchers have concluded that the neurotransmitter dopamine may be a possible contributor. Other factors that are likely to contribute to ADHD, according to the National Institute of Mental health, may include:

  • Genetics

  • Exposure to toxins, such as lead, during pregnancy or early childhood

  • Brain injury

  • Low birth weight or premature delivery

How does the brain differ from a neurotypical brain?

Dopamine: Much research suggests people with ADHD tend to have dopamine actions and levels that are different from a non-ADHD brain. Dopamine is a chemical in the brain that can affect a person’s mood, attention, motivation and movement. It regulates the brain’s reward system by increasing levels when someone experiences pleasure - such as eating food, socializing or exercising. Some researchers argue that other factors contribute more to ADHD than dopamine levels.

Structural differences: MRI findings show clear significant structural differences can be found in the brains of those with ADHD. A new study from the Journal of the International Neuropsychological Society found that children diagnosed with ADHD have reduced volume in certain areas of the brain that impact behavioral control. They found a significant reduction in brain volume in multiple areas including the frontal, temporal, and parietal lobes. The regions with the greatest reductions were those that are responsible for cognitive and behavioral control. These areas, such as the frontal lobes, are involved in:

  • impulse control

  • inhibition

  • motor activity

  • concentration

Researchers also looked at the differences in white and grey matter in children with and without ADHD. White matter consists of axons, or nerve fibers. Grey matter is the outer layer of the brain. Researchers found that people with ADHD may have different neural pathways in areas of the brain involved in impulsivity, lack of attention and motor activity. These different pathways might partly explain why people with ADHD often have behavioral issues and learning difficulties.

How do I treat ADHD?

Treatment is necessary to improve quality of life in ADHD. For those under the age of 5, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends behavior therapy as the first line of treatment. For children 6 years or older, the recommendations are medication combined with behavior therapy. Early intervention can:

  • decrease behavioral problems

  • improve school grades

  • help with social skills

  • prevent failures in finishing tasks

Lifestyle changes can also help control ADHD symptoms. This is especially helpful for children who are still building habits. You may try:

  • limiting television time, especially during dinner and other times of concentration

  • getting involved in a sport or hobby

  • increasing organizational skills

  • setting goals and attainable rewards

  • sticking to a daily routine

Is there a cure for ADHD?

There is no cure for ADHD but with the right treatment, you or your child can live a normal and happy life. Despite some of the challenges often seen in childhood, some symptoms improve with age. In fact, the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) notes that the brain of an ADHD patient does reach a “normal” state, but it’s just delayed.

Reach out to a professional if you or your child need support. You may also consider talking to professionals at your child’s school to explore possible supplemental services.

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