For many years, doctors treated ADHD to the best of their ability, but there was still a gap in knowledge in regards to the inner workings of an ADHD brain. Fortunately, advances in brain imaging have allowed for a much better understanding of how ADHD brains function. As a result, treatments for ADHD have the potential to become even more effective. In this guide, we'll take a closer look at the ADHD brain to provide more insight into how it works and why it's different from that of someone without the condition.
ADHD Brain Networks
Researchers have found that ADHD brains respond differently to various challenges due to the way ADHD brain networks may function in a unique way.
One study found that, when given a difficult cognitive task, participants with ADHD failed to activate their anterior cingulate cortex. This part of the brain is typically responsible for telling the brain what to focus on and when to focus on it. It also tells the brain how long to pay attention to something.
These are all known areas where people with ADHD typically struggle, but the study helped to unveil the true source of the issue. The inability to engage the anterior cingulate cortex turned out to be only one part of the problem.
In addition, the brain’s default mode network, which is active when there's no pressing task to perform, was not deactivating when focused attention was required. Often associated with daydreaming, the default mode network remained engaged when the task was presented. The circuits in an ADHD brain aren't able to effectively quiet down the default mode network, which creates more opportunities for disrupting attention.
Attention isn't the only area affected by differences in brain networking, however. It also comes into play with other ADHD behaviors, such as impulsivity. In this case, the brain's thalamus is affected. The thalamus controls response inhibition by communicating with the frontal cortex, where emotional expression and problem solving are managed. When something is not appropriate or safe, the thalamus will send a signal that restricts someone's behavior.
For people with ADHD, the thalamus doesn't always function this way. The signals don't reach the frontal cortex, which can lead to impulsive behaviors like blurting out things that someone later regrets, rashly spending money or indulging in cravings, or engaging in potentially dangerous behaviors.
Observing the Effects of Dopamine
Of the most influential findings from modern brain imaging is the ability to observe the effects of dopamine in an ADHD brain. Doctors had long suspected that dopamine played a role in ADHD symptoms and behaviors, but there wasn't enough evidence to prove that connection.
An injected radioactive tracer is able to give a clearer picture into dopamine's role in ADHD. Viewing the results through brain imaging, researchers can see that dopamine activity levels are lower in children and adults with ADHD. This can make it more difficult to stay motivated and avoid becoming distracted or hyperfocused. Low dopamine levels can also contribute to depression or other mental health issues. Fortunately, taking stimulant medications can help normalize dopamine function in the brain of someone with ADHD.
Differences in ADHD Brain Structure
While the differences in how an ADHD brain is "wired" can provide the most insight into the condition's behaviors and symptoms, it's also worth noting that the ADHD brain often exhibits physical differences compared to a neurotypical brain.
For example, children with ADHD have been found to have volume differences in the prefrontal cortex, cerebellum, hippocampus, and amygdala. These parts of the brain are usually slightly smaller in a child with ADHD compared to a child without the condition. Essentially, researchers found that these areas of the brain mature at a slower rate in children with the disorder.
As a child grows, these parts of the brain continue to grow and develop. That's true regardless of whether they have ADHD or not. As a result, the differences in size in these parts of the brain are less noticeable once they reach adulthood.
This doesn't mean that ADHD goes away in adulthood, however. The fact that there are still observable differences in the brain of an adult with ADHD actually proves the opposite. These findings revealed that the chance of ADHD persisting into adulthood is higher than once though.
Working with an ADHD Brain
When thinking about the ways in which an ADHD brain is different, it's important to remember that these differences don't need to be framed as deficiencies. Instead, discoveries about the ADHD brain are illuminating and impactful. The more we know about how an ADHD brain works and is structured, the better the condition can be treated.
ADHD medication is the most effective way to manage the symptoms and behaviors caused by differences in the ADHD brain. If you have any questions about ADHD treatment, don't hesitate to reach out to our team of licensed clinicians at Done.