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ADHD vs. Non-ADHD Brain

Medically Reviewed by Smitha Bhandari, MD on May 13, 2022

If your child has attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), you know that they face different obstacles from children with non-ADHD brains. This disorder can cause your kid to have trouble focusing, staying still, or holding in impulsive behaviors.

ADHD doesn’t mean your child isn’t as smart as kids who don’t have it. But it might affect the way they perform or act in school, and other important areas of life. Experts have found differences in the brains of people with and without the condition. These might change as a child grows and develops.

What Are the Differences Between the ADHD and Non-ADHD Brain?

The structure of your child’s brain. Some studies have found that different parts of the brain may be smaller in those with ADHD.

Your brain is divided into lobes, which are different areas that control certain functions. As its name suggests, your frontal lobe is in the front of your head. This section of your brain helps with:

  • Organization
  • Planning
  • Focus
  • Decision-making
  • Problem-solving
  • Memory
  • Judgment
  • Impulse control
  • Motivation
  • Language
  • Social behavior
  • Your ability to delay gratification
  • Your concept of time

If your child has ADHD, their frontal lobe may develop later than people who don’t have it. Studies of people with ADHD found smaller brain volume in certain areas, some of which control emotional response and impulse control, which can be struggles for kids with ADHD.

People with ADHD may also have a smaller overall brain size. Experts noticed this more in children than adults.

Smaller, less mature parts of your child’s brain might never grow to the same point as people without ADHD.

The function of your child’s brain. ADHD can involve changes in blood flow to certain parts of your child’s brain such as the prefrontal areas. This means that there’s less brain function in those places.

The prefrontal region of your brain deals with executive functions, which are the high-level skills that help you control your behaviors. These may deal with your child’s organizational skills, planning skills, level of focus, memory, and emotional responses.

Experts believe that ADHD might prevent areas of your brain from working together like they should. They call this functional brain connectivity. One study found that kids with ADHD don’t have the same brain connections as those without. An ADHD brain may have different connections between the frontal cortex and the visual processing area. This means that people with ADHD might process things differently than people without the condition.

The chemistry of your child’s brain. Neurotransmitters carry messages from your nerve cells to the next nerve, muscle, or gland cell. They help your body process information from other organs. Dopamine and noradrenaline are the neurotransmitters most closely associated with executive function, which is a common problem for people with ADHD.

If your child has ADHD, there’s an imbalance in their dopamine system. They may not have enough dopamine or enough receptors for it. On the other hand, their body may not be using its dopamine correctly.

This is why doctors often prescribe stimulant medications for ADHD symptoms. These drugs can help boost dopamine production or help your child’s body use dopamine better.

How Do Doctors Diagnose ADHD?

Your child’s doctor will use the American Psychiatric Association's Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM-5) to diagnose their ADHD. In addition to laying out guidelines for diagnosis criteria, the manual also ensures that children receive proper treatment for their condition.

In order to be diagnosed with ADHD, your child must show a pattern of inattention and/or hyperactivity-impulsivity. These symptoms also have to negatively affect your child’s development.

For the inattentive type, your child must show six or more symptoms (for children up to 16) or five or more (for those 17 and older). These must be present for at least 6 months. They include:

  • Can’t pay close attention to detail/makes careless mistakes
  • Trouble holding attention during activities
  • Seems not to pay attention to someone when they speak
  • Doesn’t follow through with instructions
  • Trouble with organizational activities
  • Avoids or doesn’t like tasks that require mental effort for a long period
  • Tends to lose necessary items
  • Is easily distracted
  • Is forgetful during daily activities

For hyperactivity and impulsivity, your child must have six or more symptoms (for kids up to 16) or five or more (for those 17 and up) for at least 6 months. Symptoms include:

  • Tends to fidget with or tap their feet or hands
  • Leaves their seat often (in situations where it’s not appropriate)
  • Runs or climbs in places they shouldn’t
  • Can’t play or engage in activities without being loud
  • Seems to always be on the move
  • Talks constantly
  • Blurts out an answer before the question is finished
  • Has a hard time waiting their turn
  • Tends to interrupt others

To get a diagnosis, your child must also have:

  • Many of these symptoms before the age of 12
  • Signs in two or more settings (school, extracurricular activities, home, etc.)
  • Symptoms interfering with their quality of work
  • No other disease that better describes their symptoms

Show Sources

SOURCES:

CDC: “Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD).”

Biological Psychiatry: “The Roles of Dopamine and Noradrenaline in the Pathophysiology and Treatment of Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder,” “Functional Disconnection of Frontal Cortex and Visual Cortex in Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder.”

Cleveland Clinic: “Neurotransmitters.”

BMC Psychiatry: “Hyperactivity/restlessness is associated with increased functional connectivity in adults with ADHD: a dimensional analysis of resting state fMRI.”

University of California San Francisco: “Executive Functions.”

Journal of Psychiatry and Neuroscience: “Regional differences in cerebral perfusion associated with the α-2A-adrenergic receptor genotypes in attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.”

Nature Communications: “Hypothalamus-hippocampus circuitry regulates impulsivity via melanin-concentrating hormone.”

Frontiers in Neural Circuits: “From Structure to Behavior in Basolateral Amygdala-Hippocampus Circuits.”

The Lancet: “Subcortical brain volume differences in participants with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder in children and adults: a cross-sectional mega-analysis.”

American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry: “ADHD and the Brain.”

Frontiers: “Brain Connectivity Models.”

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