14 Jun What Happens in an ADHD Brain
You, or someone you know, has been diagnosed with ADHD, and you’re struggling to understand what that diagnosis actually means. Is ADHD behavioral or neurological? Does it really exist and, if so, how is the brain of someone with ADHD different than neurotypical brains?
Below, we’ll take a look at this disorder inside and out and discuss how the telltale behavioral signs of ADHD originate within the brain.
What is ADHD?
ADHD is short for Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder. It’s a neurobehavioral disorder. Some people who receive this diagnosis can display a tendency to be hyperactive and impulsive, while others may not be hyper at all and instead have difficulty focusing.
Interestingly, ADHD is not actually an attention deficit at all. It’s more like an excess of attention, without the ability to “turn off” or select what to pay attention to. This occurs in the basal ganglia, which acts as a switchboard in the brain, turning things “on” and “off.” For the majority of individuals with ADHD, the greatest challenge is getting the system to be “revved down,” instead of it needing to be “revved up.” Essentially, ADHD is often a matter of “too many gas pedals” and “not enough brake pedals.”
Something we see quite often at Cerebrum is that once individuals who have been given stimulants to treat ADHD (such as Adderall or Ritalin) stop taking the medication, and their ADHD often becomes worse than before they started the medication. This is because these medications are activating even more “gas pedals” but do not address the real issue, which is the necessity to activate those “brake pedals” more effectively. No existing drug works on the “brake pedals” – but, fortunately, Cerebrum’s treatment approach does!
ADHD is Widespread and Growing
ADHD is one of the most common childhood neurological disorders. It affects an estimated 10 percent of all children in the US, and that number is growing. Research shows that cases of ADHD are on the rise, with more than 1 out of 10 children diagnosed with ADHD in 2011, which is an astonishing 42 percent increase over the past decade.
While the majority of kids with ADHD outgrow it, for up to 4 percent of adults ADHD is a lifelong diagnosis.
What is Typical ADHD Behavior?
ADHD is most often associated with a hyperactive child who won’t sit still and is hard to manage.
While that may be true in some cases, ADHD may present itself as quiet and withdrawn. A person with the disorder may not be “bouncing off the walls,” but instead getting lost in a daydream. He or she may be disorganized, forgetful, or flighty.
Here’s a look at typical ADHD behaviors:
- Difficulty paying attention
It’s important to note that people with ADHD aren’t lazy or unmotivated. Those living with this diagnosis must struggle hard to pay attention and stay engaged. ADHD is tied to how the brain processes information, as we’ll discuss further in this article.
ADHD and Gender
ADHD also affects gender differently.
It affects boys more than girls in a ratio of three to one.
While boys with ADHD are typically more impulsive, girls are typically more withdrawn. Girls often struggle with anxiety or depression that can become more pronounced as they enter the teen or adult years.
How ADHD Affects the Brain
Structurally, there’s a difference in the brain of people with ADHD. Over a period of 10 years, one study used MRIs to compare children with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder and those without. It turns out the children with ADHD had physically smaller brains. This study showed that the ADHD brain was between 3 percent to 4 percent smaller than the neurotypical brain.
Please note that brain size is not linked to intelligence. To underscore this, one of the smartest brains in all of human history, Albert Einstein, is thought to have had ADHD.
What’s most interesting about this study is that the brain of those with ADHD is smaller in certain areas, specifically the frontal lobes. The frontal lobes affect impulse control, concentration, and inhibition.
ADHD also affects size in other areas of the brain, including temporal grey matter, cerebellum, and caudate nucleus. These regions also affect motor activity. So, why does this happen? What’s the big picture of ADHD in the brain?
Those with ADHD have impaired executive functioning. Executive functioning is the part of your brain that sorts through all incoming information. It decides what’s important and files away what’s not, so that you can focus on the task at hand, whether that’s engaging in conversation, paying the bills, or reading an article on the Internet.
In the ADHD brain, executive functioning either doesn’t function at all or to a limited extent. Instead of being able to decide what demands attention immediately and what can wait, the hyperactive brain greets all incoming information as important and needing attention right away.
Other Treatments for ADHD
Mental Exercise. There’s exciting research that mental exercises can dramatically improve attention spans of those diagnosed with ADHD. In some cases, mental exercises can eliminate the need to use drug therapy altogether.
Physical Exercise. In addition to mental exercise, people with ADHD also need physical activity. A recent study found that less than 30 minutes of daily physical activity can significantly reduce ADHD symptoms. You may think that 30 minutes doesn’t sound like a lot of time, and you’re right. But when you consider the fact that children (and adults) spend the majority of their time sitting in place and being inactive, you can see how 30 minutes of dedicated physical activity is definitely not the norm.
Neurological Rehabilitation. Cerebrum specializes in neuro rehab and creates customized treatment plans for each individual specific to their brain. This includes treatment for focus and concentration.
ADHD is complicated. There’s still a lot of research that needs to be done on how the disorder affects the brain.
That said, ADHD is not an insurmountable handicap. In fact, some of the world’s brightest minds and best athletes have used it to push the boundaries of social norms in a positive way. Among those with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder are thought to include Thomas Edison, Mozart, Leonardo da Vinci, Stephen Hawking, Sir Richard Branson, Michael Jordan, and Michael Phelps.