ADHD In The Brain: How Does It Work?

Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) is a neurodevelopmental disorder that affects both children and adults. It is a condition that makes it hard for people to concentrate, focus, and stay organized. ADHD can also cause hyperactivity, impulsivity, and a range of other symptoms that can impact daily life. This article will delve into the details of ADHD in the brain and explore how it works.

The Brain Function in ADHD

To understand how ADHD works, it is essential to understand the function of the brain. The brain is responsible for controlling behavior, emotion, attention, and planning. The executive functions that it manages include:

  • Impulse control
  • Organization
  • Cognitive flexibility
  • Attention span
  • Memory
  • Planning and prioritizing

ADHD disrupts the brain’s ability to control these executive functions, leading to the symptoms experienced by individuals with the condition. According to research conducted by the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), the brains of people with ADHD are different from the brains of people who do not have it.

Differences in the ADHD Brain

The brains of people with ADHD differ from those without it mainly in three areas:

The Prefrontal Cortex

The prefrontal cortex is the area of the brain responsible for executive functions such as impulse control, planning, and prioritizing. In people with ADHD, this area of the brain is underdeveloped, which affects their ability to focus, control impulses, and manage emotions.

The Limbic System

The limbic system is responsible for emotions such as fear, pleasure, and anger. It also deals with processing rewards and motivation. In people with ADHD, the limbic system is overactive, which leads to impulsivity and hyperactivity.

The Basal Ganglia

The basal ganglia are a group of structures in the brain responsible for motor control, as well as decision-making and motivation. In people with ADHD, the basal ganglia are underactive, which leads to difficulty in regulating movement, inattention, and lack of motivation.

Neurotransmitters and ADHD

Neurotransmitters are chemicals in the brain that transmit signals between neurons. The two neurotransmitters that play a significant role in ADHD are dopamine and norepinephrine.


Dopamine is a neurotransmitter associated with the brain’s reward system. It is responsible for the feeling of pleasure and motivation. In people with ADHD, the brain produces less dopamine which leads to under stimulation of the reward system. This under-stimulation causes people with ADHD to seek out more stimulation to feel satisfied.


Norepinephrine is a neurotransmitter that is associated with the body’s natural “fight or flight” response. It is responsible for the ability to pay attention and concentrate. People with ADHD have lower levels of norepinephrine in their brains, which results in difficulties with concentration and attention.

ADHD Treatments

While there is no cure for ADHD, several treatments can help manage the symptoms. ADHD treatments aim to increase the presence of norepinephrine and dopamine in the brain, which helps with concentration and other executive functions.

Stimulant Medications

Stimulant medications are the most common and effective treatment for ADHD. These medications increase dopamine and norepinephrine in the brain which leads to a decrease in symptoms such as inattention, hyperactivity, and impulsivity. However, stimulant medications can be habit-forming and have several side effects such as decreased appetite, insomnia, and mood changes.

Non-Stimulant Medications

If stimulant medications are not effective or cause too many side effects, non-stimulant medications can be used. These medications work differently from stimulants by increasing norepinephrine in the brain. They are less likely to cause addiction or side effects, but are generally less effective than stimulants.

Behavioral Therapy

Behavioral therapy focuses on changing behaviors and coping skills. It does not directly target the brain functioning, but rather helps an individual manage their symptoms by developing organizational skills, teaching strategies for time management, and promoting healthy behaviors.


In conclusion, ADHD is a complex condition that impacts the function of the brain. The underdeveloped prefrontal cortex, overactive limbic system, and underactive basal ganglia in individuals with ADHD lead to difficulty with executive functions. Dopamine and norepinephrine imbalances in people with ADHD cause problems with motivation and concentration. While there is no cure for ADHD, various treatments such as medications and behavioral therapy can help individuals manage their symptoms and improve their daily lives.


FAQs about ADHD in the Brain: How Does It Work?

1. What is ADHD?

ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder) is a neurodevelopmental disorder that affects both children and adults. It is characterized by symptoms such as hyperactivity, impulsivity, and inattention.

2. How does ADHD affect the brain?

The precise cause of ADHD is unclear, but research suggests that certain brain areas and neurotransmitters are affected. The frontal lobes, the basal ganglia, and the reticular activating system are some of the brain regions that play a role in ADHD. Neurotransmitters such as dopamine, norepinephrine, and serotonin are also involved.

3. Can ADHD be treated?

Yes, ADHD can be treated but there is no cure. The goal of treatment is to manage symptoms and improve quality of life. Treatments for ADHD include medication, behavioral therapy, and coaching. A combination of treatments may be the most effective approach for some people.


1. Nigg, J. T. (2013). Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder and adverse health outcomes. Clinical psychology review, 33(2), 215-228. (italic, grey, size 8pt)

2. Cortese, S., Imperati, D., Moavero, R., &Vitiello, B. (2015). ADHD and psychiatric comorbidities: a review of the literature. Journal of attention disorders, 19(10), 871-887. (italic, grey, size 8pt)

3. Bauermeister, J. J., Barkley, R. A., Bauermeister, J. A., Martinez, J. V., & McBurnett, K. (2012). Validity of the sluggish cognitive tempo, inattention, and hyperactivity-impulsivity symptoms dimensions in DSM-IV ADHD. Journal of abnormal child psychology, 40(5), 683-697. (italic, grey, size 8pt)