If you live with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), your brain, not your willpower, may play a role in your symptoms. Living with ADHD can be frustrating. You may want to concentrate more, follow conversations better, or be more organized. But if you live with ADHD, doing these things can be challenging. People around you might encourage you to “try harder,” not realizing that ADHD isn’t something you can turn on and off. It’s natural to feel frustrated when you live with ADHD, but differences in your brain, not your personality, may be at the root of your symptoms.
ADHD is a neurodevelopmental disorder that can affect the central nervous system. This means there may be differences in the structure of your brain compared to that of someone who doesn’t have ADHD.
“Most people will answer the question ‘what is ADHD’ with a list of symptoms and challenges,” says Dr. Rebecca Jackson, vice president of Programs and Outcomes and board certified cognitive specialist for Brain Balance Achievement Centers in Cary, North Carolina.
“While understanding the concerns associated with [ADHD] is important, it’s also key to understand how ADHD presents in the brain so that we can better understand why we see the symptoms and challenges that are present.”
The exact cause of ADHD is unknown, but research shows that structural differences in the frontal lobe of the brain may contribute to some of your symptoms. Jackson explains that with ADHD, there may be a “difference in regions of the brain including the prefrontal cortex and the amygdala, areas of the brain that support attention and focus, impulse control, emotional regulation, and other executive function tasks.”
These structural differences can make tasks that require sustained attention, organization, planning, and follow-through more difficult to accomplish. Frontal lobe differences can also affect your:
- time perception
- communication skills
- need to seek gratification
A 2020 study looking at the structural abnormalities in the brain in children between 8 and 12 showed that lower brain and total gray matter volume was consistently found in those children with ADHD. This study also showed that other parts of the brain, including the prefrontal and other frontal areas and the basal ganglia, have lower volumes.
neuron networks and neurotransmitters
The same case-control study also found differences in the neuron networks of those living with ADHD. Neuron networks are the pathways signals used to travel through the brain. These pathways use chemicals called neurotransmitters to communicate with one another.
If you’re living with ADHD, your brain may not produce enough neurotransmitters, or your neuron networks may not send or receive them properly. Jackson notes that these differences may make children living with ADHD seem younger than their peers in areas such as:
- social interactions
- reading nonverbal social cues
- emotional maturity
how this looks in ADHD
Understanding how ADHD impacts the brain’s functioning is only part of the equation. Let’s take a look at how these structural and chemical changes impact day-to-day life when you have ADHD.
Living with ADHD can make it difficult to stick to a single task. In our world of social media, virtual meetings, and instant messaging, we’re all overwhelmed with distractions that can pull our attention away from what we’re doing. But when you live with ADHD, concentrating on a single task can be even more challenging.
Research suggests that lower levels of neurotransmitters in the brain associated with attention and focus — dopamine and norepinephrine — might be the reason that you have trouble focusing on one task. If you have a hard time concentrating, there are ways you can fire up your focus.
lack of motivation
Feeling unmotivated when you live with ADHD has nothing to do with being lazy. For many of us, it’s frustrating to feel as if we’ve accomplished nothing we set out to do at the start of our day. Distractions, stress, and having too much going on in our lives can drive us to become unmotivated.
When you have ADHD, your symptoms might make it more difficult to find the motivation to complete a task, particularly if it’s one you don’t enjoy. Lower levels of dopamine — the neurotransmitter responsible for reward and motivation — might play a role in why you have trouble staying motivated.
A 2017 study looked at differences in motivation in adolescents between 9 to 16, some of whom had ADHD and some who didn’t. Researchers found that those with ADHD were less motivated to complete tasks they felt might take a longer time than those without ADHD. If you’re having trouble completing a task or project, there are ways you can improve your motivation.
trouble getting organized
Even organization comes down to how you brain is wired when you live with ADHD. The swirl of tasks and thoughts and projects in your mind can interfere with being organized. You may walk into your house, for example, and before you can put your keys away, you’re bombarded with several new thoughts. The plants need to be watered. The dog needs to go out. You stepped in something wet. All too quickly, the keys are out of sight and out of mind, as are a dozen other things that could be put away.
While disorganization is one of the traits often associated with ADHD, there are tips that can help you learn how to get organized.
difficulty paying attention
Some of the common symptoms of ADHD involve difficulty paying attention, lack of focus, and trouble concentrating. Another classic symptom is being easily distracted. All of this can work together to make it harder to focus and get things done. Deadlines and due dates are often missed and overlooked.
In a 2015 study published in the Journal of Neural Transmission, researchers looked at whether adults with ADHD have a more difficult time with sustained attention (focusing on an activity over a long period of time) than adults without ADHD.
Compared to people without ADHD, those with ADHD had more trouble with sustained attention, selective attention (focusing on one task for a period of time), and divided attention (focusing on more than one task at a time). But there are ways you can stay productive and get things done with ADHD.
can a brain scan detect ADHD?
Research supports the use of brain magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to help detect structural differences related to ADHD. An MRI may even be able to help distinguish between ADHD subtypes. But determining whether you live with ADHD is more complex than just having diagnostic imaging done.
“ADHD is diagnosed by various healthcare professionals through survey assessments designed to gather information on behaviors and functions in multiple settings and scenarios,” says Jackson.
“In order to meet the threshold for the ADHD diagnosis, concerns need to be high enough in multiple categories and settings.”
are there treatments for ADHD?
Seeking treatment for ADHD may mean trying a variety of therapies and medication. Some of these methods can directly impact the brain, and your mental health team will work with you to find what’s appropriate for your situation.
“This is a hopeful time for individuals diagnosed with ADHD, as the options to help have expanded in recent years, based on research demonstrating that changes can be made in the networks and pathways in the brain that help to sustain attention and regulate our mood and emotions,” says Jackson.
ADHD treatment options that might target changes in the brain include central nervous system (CNS) stimulants such as methylphenidate (Ritalin). These medications help manage your symptoms by boosting two neurotransmitters in the brain, dopamine and norepinephrine.
Another treatment found to be helpful is neurofeedback, once known as electroencephalographic (EEG) biofeedback. Neurofeedback doesn’t require medication and these days, is accessible at home.
Image credit: reVeriE Painting Tracey Messlein Newport
Last medically reviewed on August 2, 2021
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