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ADHD brain: Function & differences

ADHD is a brain-based condition that affects people of all ages, but what causes an ADHD brain? Does it look different?

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September 21, 2022
5 min read

ADHD is a brain-based condition that affects people of all ages, but its symptoms tend to show up first in childhood. You might be wondering: What causes ADHD in the brain? How does it look different, and why does it occur? We’ll look at some of these questions below.

Article breakdown

ADHD brain: function & differences

Remember, different doesn't mean bad. In fact, the brain differences associated with ADHD may be part of what makes people with this condition so creative and innovative. Brain care is for every brain.

How does ADHD affect the brain?

ADHD is a brain disorder. It affects the way a person's brain develops, works, and processes information in the environment. The brain is made up of billions of neurons that connect to each other through neural pathways. These pathways carry signals from one part of the brain to another, allowing us to think and act in ways that are necessary for our daily lives. In people with ADHD, these pathways may not be fully developed or may have poor connections between them; this can cause problems with attention span and impulse control (the ability to think before acting).

What part of the brain does ADHD affect?

The frontal lobe, temporal lobe and limbic system are all areas of the brain that have been shown to be affected in individuals with ADHD.

The frontal lobe is one of the largest parts of your brain and is responsible for many functions including:

  • Planning, organizing and prioritizing tasks;

  • Understanding details;

  • Shifting attention from one thing to another;

For people with ADHD, the frontal lobe may be smaller than normal or have poor connections with other parts of the brain.

What causes ADHD in the brain?

The exact cause of ADHD isn't completely understood yet. Some research has shown that genetics may play a role by making certain children less able to manage their impulses and control their attention span than others.

Another possibility is that the brain chemical dopamine is affected differently in those who have ADHD; too little dopamine can make a person feel restless or bored while too much makes them feel energetic and speedy (think cocaine users). A lack of acetylcholine—a chemical that helps us think clearly—has also been linked with the disorder; some people may have naturally low levels because they don't produce enough acetylcholine on their own or because they're missing certain genes needed for its production.

While it's possible to have ADHD without having any other health problems, there are many related conditions that can occur in conjunction with it, such as learning disabilities, sleep disorders and depression.

What does ADHD look like in the brain?

There is no one-size-fits-all brain scan that can diagnose ADHD. The diagnosis is based on a set of behavioral symptoms, combined with various mental health assessments. However, there are many different types of brain scans that can help give doctors and researchers more information about an individual's brain structure and functioning.

These scans can help identify differences in the size and shape of certain areas of the brain, as well as chemicals present inside it. Some research suggests that people with ADHD have smaller overall volumes than those without it—in some areas like the prefrontal cortex (the area responsible for regulating behavior), but not others like the cerebellum (responsible for movement). In addition, studies show lower levels of dopamine transporters or receptors (which work together to send signals between neurons) in people with a diagnosis compared to healthy controls.

There is also evidence that people with ADHD have different patterns of brain activity than those without the disorder, especially when it comes to tasks that require attention. For example, studies show reduced connectivity between some areas of the brain in children and adults with ADHD compared to healthy controls.

What does an ADHD brain feel like?

ADHD brains are more active than normal brains. They have more connections between the parts of their brains and they react to stimuli more strongly and intensely than other people do. This can mean people with ADHD are less efficient and less organized. They have difficulty focusing, remembering information, completing tasks, staying on task, shifting attention from one task to another smoothly, inhibiting impulses and controlling emotions (especially anxiety).

On the other hand, having an ADHD brain can mean you're more creative, flexible, and willing to take risks. You may be more likely to think outside the box and come up with new ideas.

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So, does ADHD make your brain different?

Yes, it does. The brains of people with ADHD are different from those of people without the condition, although they're not all the same. We know this because studies have been done comparing children with and without ADHD, adults with and without ADHD, and even twins where one has ADHD and the other doesn't.

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