Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) is a neurodevelopmental disorder involving symptoms like inattention, hyperactivity, impulsivity, or a combination. Some experts believe people with ADHD experience abnormal amounts of dopamine in their brains, including difficulty in dopamine transmission.
This irregularity may cause behavioral and motivational problems that may interfere with an individual's ability to be motivated, achieve goals, and manage behavioral challenges. Research about ADHD, including that concerning dopamine and its role, is ongoing. However, looking at what these studies have found to come to your own conclusions about this potential link can be beneficial.
What Are Neurotransmitters? An Overview
Neurotransmitters are chemicals inside the brain controlled by natural electric impulses. They travel across gaps called synapses inside brain cells, signaling the brain to perform specific tasks. Each type of neurotransmitter has its own function and its synapses on which they have effects. They act as messengers.
Examples of neurotransmitters include serotonin, norepinephrine, GABA, and dopamine, among others. These neurochemical messengers are responsible for many functions throughout the brain and body, including mood and emotions.
The minds of those with mood, personality, or developmental disorders, including ADHD, may have a unique relationship with some neurochemicals. Some medications designed to treat these conditions' symptoms act on neurochemicals to promote changes in the activity or number of neurochemicals present.
What Is Dopamine?
Dopamine is an essential neurotransmitter involved in pleasure, attention, and information processing. Dopamine causes the brain to seek out rewards and experience satisfaction and a sense of accomplishment if those rewards are attained.
This neurotransmitter is also responsible for several motor functions, like balance and coordination, and is vital to sleep quality. At least five different types of dopamine receptors in the brain play different roles.
However, dopamine itself isn't the entire picture. The state and number of the brain's dopamine receptors can also be critical. Too many or too few receptors or damage to the receptors can cause motivation, concentration, and well-being challenges.
The Brain's Reward System
Dopamine is the cause behind the sense of accomplishment you might get when you finish a big project or the sensation you can experience after biting into a chocolate bar. This neurotransmitter is released when your brain interprets stimuli or a situation as rewarding.
For example, when you eat a dessert, its sugar may cause a surge of dopamine. This surge reinforces the behavior, so you're more likely to repeat it in the future. From an evolutionary standpoint, these bursts of dopamine were initially a way to communicate with the environment and for humans to seek out what benefited survival.
Often called the "pleasure chemical," dopamine is potentially better described as the desire chemical. Dopamine causes the desire to seek out what has previously caused dopamine releases. This function may be beneficial if you seek a reward or a goal that has value to you. For example, stimuli like food or situations like sex and physical activity can cause a release of dopamine in varying amounts.
However, in modern society, some people might find that it seems as though their natural reward system has been hijacked. Neurotypical people may also face more challenges related to impulse control and distractibility due to the impacts of changes in technology and workload. However, neurodiverse individuals like those with ADHD may be particularly vulnerable, as their brains may already be wired to seek out high-dopamine stimuli whenever possible.
What Happens When Dopamine Is Low?
Low dopamine can contribute to a loss of pleasure in previously enjoyed activities, difficulty achieving motivation, and insomnia. While the standard treatment for depression is medication, which may work by increasing serotonin transmission, some people with ADHD respond better to medications that can prevent the reuptake of dopamine in the synapse. High concentrations of dopamine in the wrong area can also lead to symptoms of other mental health disorders, including psychosis and schizophrenia.
However, before starting, changing, or stopping medication or considering an ADHD diagnosis, consult a medical professional like your primary care physician or a psychiatrist.
How Can The Brains Of People With ADHD Differ?
Brain imaging performed on children and adults with ADHD has shown differences in the dopamine transport system. The area most affected is the prefrontal cortex, responsible for controlling behavior, directing attention, and inhibiting impulses. Research, which includes brain imaging, has shown that the brains of children and adults with ADHD seem to function differently than neurotypical brains.
ADHD brains can be thought to have an ineffective filter for incoming stimuli and difficulty processing information. It's believed that there are naturally fewer dopamine receptors in the prefrontal cortex and less overall dopamine produced. The ADHD neurotransmitters dopamine and norepinephrine are found to be deficient in these individuals, and norepinephrine is made from dopamine.
People with ADHD may compulsively seek high-dopamine activities and stimuli to achieve a dopamine rush, so people with ADHD may be more likely to engage in impulsive and risky behaviors. An individual may seek any situation that incites a strong burst of dopamine in the brain.
People with ADHD may describe themselves as adrenaline lovers, never satisfied, and always seeking what is out of reach. Individuals with ADHD may also describe difficulty separating themselves from interesting stimuli, such as TV shows, multiple tabs in a browser, or a passion project.
Dopamine is the chemical that tells ADHD brains to pay attention to what's going on. Without a sufficient level, attention, memory, and motivation may slip. A person with ADHD may be chronically unsatisfied, bored, or unhappy if the condition is not managed correctly.
Can People With ADHD Increase Dopamine Levels?
Treating ADHD often involves creating strategies for increasing dopamine in the brain healthily. Stimulant medications are sometimes prescribed to increase dopamine in the prefrontal cortex, thereby alleviating symptoms of ADHD. However, these medications often cause side effects. While stimulant medication can be invaluable for some people, it must be monitored by a doctor.
Dietary changes may also benefit those with ADHD, as studies have found that people with ADHD are more likely to develop type two diabetes and heart disease later in life.
Whether you have hyperactive, inattentive, or combined ADHD, movement is often an essential part of ADHD treatment. Exercise has been shown to increase both dopamine and serotonin production in the brain, as well as increase dopamine receptor density. Even if you don't have the time or inclination to hit the gym, going outside for a walk several times a week may make a difference.
Once considered an alternative treatment, mindfulness meditation is now also recognized for its effect on the ADHD brain. Mindfulness practices involve focusing on the present moment using breathing and deliberate focus techniques. These activities may increase your awareness of your thoughts and emotions and can cause dopamine release for some people.
Therapy And ADHD
There can be many components to a successful treatment plan for ADHD. Therapy can be a valuable part of the process. A therapist can work with you to help you set treatment goals, monitor your progress, and create behavioral strategies to work with your unique brain instead of fighting against limitations.
However, some people with ADHD may experience barriers to receiving support from an in-person therapist due to inaccessibility, a lack of financial resources, or distance. Working with an online mental health specialist through a platform like BetterHelp may be more convenient, as you can meet with your provider from home in any location with an internet connection. In addition, you can choose between phone, video, or live chat sessions, giving you control over how you receive support.
Some people with ADHD can benefit from a structured environment that helps support their symptoms. Research supports the effectiveness of online treatment in this process. For example, a 2022 study found that online therapy could improve symptoms of ADHD in adults and children as effectively as in-person modalities.
In addition to lifestyle changes and mindset, working with a licensed mental health professional may make achieving your goals, creating tangible solutions to obstacles you may face, and finding fulfillment much easier. Consider reaching out to a provider to get started.
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