Can An ADHD Brain Scan Help With Diagnosis?

Medically reviewed by Laura Angers Maddox, NCC, LPC
Updated September 26, 2023by BetterHelp Editorial Team

Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) generally affects millions of individuals globally and is usually characterized by symptoms like inattentiveness, impulsiveness, and hyperactivity. Despite being a widely diagnosed mental health condition, obtaining an accurate diagnosis for ADHD can still be challenging. Recently, brain scans seem to have become an increasingly utilized tool in diagnosing ADHD. While brain scans can be helpful in providing additional information for a diagnosis, they may not be of much help when it comes to treatment. Online therapy is one way that people with ADHD can learn to better manage their symptoms.

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What Is An ADHD Brain Scan?

An ADHD brain scan is normally a form of neuroimaging that examines the structure and function of the brain. The most used brain scans for ADHD are typically functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) and Positron Emission Tomography (PET). These scans generally use magnetic fields and radioactive tracers to produce images of the brain that reveal how it functions. 

ADHD brain scans are likely becoming increasingly popular for diagnosing the condition because they can provide a non-invasive and accurate method of assessing brain function. They can also track the region of the brain that’s usually responsible for cognitive functioning, such as decision-making and attention control. This could potentially be used to inform an ADHD diagnosis.

How Does An ADHD Brain Scan Function?

During an ADHD brain scan, the individual being scanned might be asked to complete tasks that activate specific brain regions. For instance, they might be asked to perform a task that requires attention and inhibitory control, such as pressing a button when a particular image appears on a screen and not pushing it if the image doesn’t appear. The brain scans can demonstrate how different regions of the brain are activated during these tasks, potentially allowing researchers to see which areas are functioning normally and which are not.

What Information Can ADHD Brain Scans Provide?

ADHD brain scans may provide valuable information regarding the functioning of the brain in individuals with ADHD. For example, they may show differences in the activity levels of certain brain regions, such as the prefrontal cortex and the basal ganglia, which are believed to play a role in attention and inhibitory control. These differences might help to explain some of the symptoms of ADHD, such as inattention and impulsiveness.

Moreover, ADHD brain scans could also be used to differentiate ADHD from other conditions that may exhibit similar symptoms, such as depression or anxiety. By observing the specific patterns of brain activity in individuals with ADHD, researchers and clinicians may better understand the underlying causes of the disorder and develop more effective treatment plans.

The Potential Role Of ADHD Brain Scans In Diagnosis

ADHD brain scans are not presently used as the sole means of diagnosing ADHD. Instead, they are typically utilized as a tool to support a diagnosis that has been made, based on a comprehensive evaluation of the individual's symptoms and behaviors.

The American Psychiatric Association (APA) suggests that a proper diagnosis of ADHD should be made by a licensed mental health professional, such as a psychologist or psychiatrist, based on a thorough evaluation of the individual's symptoms, behaviors, and medical history. While ADHD brain scans could provide valuable information regarding the functioning of the brain, they are not always required for making a diagnosis of ADHD. In many cases, a comprehensive evaluation of the individual's symptoms and behaviors are sufficient to make a diagnosis.

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However, in certain cases, ADHD brain scans might be helpful in making a diagnosis. For instance, if the individual's symptoms are not clearly indicative of ADHD, or if they have other conditions that might contribute to their symptoms, such as depression or anxiety, an ADHD brain scan could provide additional information to clarify the diagnosis. Ultimately, the decision to use ADHD brain scans in the diagnostic process is generally made on a case-by-case basis.

Limitations Of ADHD Brain Scans

It can be crucial to keep in mind that ADHD brain scans are not necessarily a perfect diagnostic tool and can have several limitations. Firstly, the results of ADHD brain scans can be influenced by various factors, such as the individual's age, gender, and overall health. Secondly, the technology utilized in ADHD brain scans tends to constantly evolve, and the interpretation of the results can be subjective, potentially leading to inaccuracies.

Additionally, while ADHD brain scans can provide valuable information regarding the functioning of the brain, they may not provide a complete picture of the individual's overall health and well-being. It can also be important to note that not all individuals with ADHD may exhibit the same brain activity patterns and that there is still much that is unknown about the relationship between brain activity and ADHD.

Benefits Of Online Therapy

Online therapy can play an important role in the treatment of ADHD, potentially providing individuals with the tools and support they deserve to manage their symptoms and lead fulfilling lives. Therapy can help individuals with ADHD develop coping mechanisms for their symptoms, such as inattention and impulsiveness, and improve their relationships with others. Being able to attend therapy sessions from the comfort and convenience of home can make it more convenient to get professional help, and online therapy is often more affordable than in-person therapy.

Effectiveness Of Online Therapy

According to a study published in the Journal of Attention Disorders, therapy can be a crucial component in the treatment of ADHD, providing individuals with the skills and support they need to manage their symptoms and improve their overall functioning. The study found that individuals with ADHD who received therapy experienced significant reductions in symptoms such as inattention, impulsiveness, and hyperactivity, and improved their ability to manage their emotions and relationships with others. Additionally, therapy was found to be effective in reducing the frequency and severity of co-occurring mental health conditions, such as depression and anxiety. As this study explains, online therapy is typically as effective as in-office therapy, making either one a valid choice for those looking for professional help with their ADHD symptoms.

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Takeaway

ADHD brain scans can be an important tool in helping to make diagnoses and providing additional information about brain function. However, there can be certain limitations to consider when using brain scans for diagnostic purposes, such as the individual's age, gender, and overall health. Studies have found that therapy can be effective in assisting individuals in reducing the frequency and severity of their ADHD symptoms and improving their ability to manage their emotions and relationships with others.

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