How ADHD affects the brain

As recently as the 1980s, Attention Deficit Hyperactive Disorder (ADHD) became a popular topic of discussion in America. Suddenly, parents of children who had a hard time sitting still and listening during class knew that there was something in their child’s brain that hindered their ability to concentrate; they weren’t simply goofing off. People were relieved that there was now a name they could use to describe the disorder.

Knowing about the disorder and understanding it, however, are two different things. The ADHD brain is different than the brain of someone without the disorder. If you or someone you love is dealing with ADHD, you should understand how it can affect the brain.

What is ADHD?

ADHD is a neurodevelopmental disorder and can present itself through inattentiveness, hyperactive-impulsiveness or a combination of the two qualities. While there’s no set way to test for the condition, medical professionals look at a person’s ability to pay attention to details and follow instructions, in addition to gauging how hyperactive or impulsive that person may be when making their diagnoses.

Signs of ADHD in adults

We often think of children being diagnosed when we talk about ADHD, but the truth is that roughly 8 million adults in the United States have the disorder, too. Nearly 5% of children in America are diagnosed with ADHD as kids, and 60% of these children continue to display signs of ADHD into adulthood. While many people blame things like sugar consumption and overstimulation as the cause of hyperactivity that’s associated with ADHD in children, scientists believe that the disorder is actually passed down genetically. ADHD is not a behavioral disorder – ADHD brain is actually structurally different than a normal brain and is at the root of the disorder.

Adults with ADHD display many of the same symptoms that kids do – that is, they have a hard time focusing or listening, have trouble remaining organized and can often have excessive energy levels or feelings of restlessness. Like many mental health conditions, ADHD manifests in different ways and the impact of ADHD on someone’s life can range from a mild annoyance to causing significant setbacks. It can affect the amount of work one can accomplish throughout the day, can limit the opportunities for advancement and can even have a negative impact on forming and sustaining healthy relationships.

how does adhd affect the brain

adhd brain effects

Another thing to consider when looking for signs of ADHD in adults is gender. Most early studies on diagnosing the disorder were done on young boys. The symptoms of ADHD often look different in female cases, meaning many times girls, and then women, go undiagnosed. While boys and men with ADHD may show outward signs of hyperactivity or restlessness, which can result in loud displays or bouts of impulsivity, women’s signs are often more subtle.

Women with ADHD are more likely to experience the disorder on a more internal level, having trouble organizing tasks, remembering dates and times or being prone to bouts of daydreaming or distraction. Because we as a society put more pressure on women to not only excel at work but also run households, women with ADHD can miss the signs; they feel afraid to speak up because they worry they’re just unable to handle what’s on their plate and it doesn’t occur to them that something is going on in their brain.

How does ADHD affect the brain?

We know that ADHD is a disorder that occurs in the brain, but why? What happens, or fails to happen, in the mind that results in ADHD? What is the ADHD brain vs. normal brain?

Brain mapping ADHD has shown that these brains function in a different way. Scientists have determined that ADHD is the result of the brain having low levels of a certain neurotransmitter or chemical produced by a neuron called norepinephrine. These chemicals then send signals or messages to other neurotransmitters in the brain, which ultimately allows you to think, feel and act in certain ways.

adhd and the brain

woman dealing with the effects of adhd on brain

Norepinephrine is a chemical that’s made by your brain which is linked to dopamine production. If your brain is producing a low amount of norepinephrine, it can throw off your dopamine levels. Dopamine is responsible for several things including our reward-motivated behavior. According to ADDitude Mag, these low levels of norepinephrine can affect the ADD brain’s frontal cortex, limbic system, basal ganglia and reticular activating system. These different parts in the brain control your emotions and executive functioning, which results in a display of ADHD symptoms like a lack of organizational skills, inattention and more.

Effects of ADHD medication on the brain

Although ADHD can sometimes be managed without medication through behavioral therapy and dietary changes, receiving the proper dosage of medication from a medical professional can have positive effects on the ADHD brain. Although it may sound counterintuitive, doctors can provide patients with stimulants to treat ADHD. Instead of causing more hyperactivity or inattention, these stimulants instead help regulate the ADHD brain’s neurotransmission functions.

Stimulants allow for a more regular release of neurotransmitters, meaning the brain can communicate messages of alertness and attention more effectively. As the most commonly prescribed type of ADHD medication, stimulants also allow the brain to better absorb information and cut down on restless behaviors. When it comes to ADHD and the brain, medications such as stimulants can often be a lifesaver for those who have tried everything yet are still negatively impacted by the disorder on a daily basis.

effects of adhd medication on the brain

Dealing with ADHD as an adult

Many adults suffering from ADHD have heard for years that they just need better time management skills or that they have personal flaws that are causing them to act differently than their peers. It’s vital for these individuals to realize that there is a difference between other people’s brains and the ADHD brain and that it is not their fault. This can lead them to a feeling of empowerment as they finally have a roadmap for treating their disorder and improving their lives. Getting a diagnosis of ADHD is the first step on this journey.

Once ADHD has been diagnosed, it can be determined whether medication is a good option or whether the condition can be treated with therapy or a change in diet. Since the ADHD brain is different than a normal brain, traditional therapy or tools for developing a successful routine may prove ineffective. Give yourself permission to explore other areas of treatment and understand that finding what works best for you or a loved one could be an evolving process.

Important note

The information and other content provided in this article, or in any linked materials, are not intended and should not be construed as medical advice, nor is the information a substitute for professional medical expertise or treatment. See full disclaimer.

Ready to change your state?

Work toward pushing through setbacks and achieving your goals by adopting empowering beliefs with the help of Tony Robbins’ digital Limiting Beliefs guide.