The Relationship Between Dopamine and ADHD

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Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) is a common mental health condition, with 8.7% of adolescents and 4.4% of adults in the United States experiencing ADHD. This condition is categorized by a pattern of inattention and hyperactivity, resulting in interpersonal struggles and challenges in school and the workplace.

The Relationship Between Dopamine and ADHD

At the root of ADHD are issues with how dopamine is transmitted to the brain. Our brain relies on dopamine for optimal mental functioning. When this relationship is distorted, symptoms of ADHD can begin to arise.

A big part of understanding this condition is becoming well-versed in what ADHD is and its impact on the brain. Read on to learn more about the relationship between dopamine and ADHD.

What Is ADHD?

ADHD is a neurodevelopmental disorder, meaning it is a condition where the growth and development of the brain are predominantly impacted. It is often diagnosed in the childhood and teenage years, though it is possible to receive a diagnosis as an adult.

Males are more likely to be diagnosed with ADHD than females, however, that doesn’t mean that females don’t experience ADHD. Instead, ADHD symptoms in girls are more likely to go unnoticed during childhood.

Symptoms of ADHD include:

  • Inattention to detail when completing school or work activities
  • Losing essential items like keys, wallets, and cell phones often
  • Becoming easily distracted by thoughts unrelated to the task at hand
  • Struggling to finish and organize tasks
  • Excessive talking
  • Interrupting others during conversations or activities
  • Consistent feelings of restlessness

What Is Dopamine?

Dopamine is a neurotransmitter naturally created in our bodies that regulates learning and motivation. This neurotransmitter is necessary for a variety of reasons.

Dopamine's Impact on Learning and Motivation

First, learning and motivation are integral parts of our lives as humans. From the time we are born, we are constantly learning, beginning with focusing on learning how to walk or eat by ourselves.

Motivation is intrinsically linked to learning, especially in our adult years. It is challenging to continue learning if we lack motivation. However, we must continue learning throughout our life thanks to our constantly evolving world.

Dopamine can also help regulate our emotional responses and increase our feelings of reward and satisfaction.

How Is ADHD Connected to Dopamine?

ADHD is a condition with a solid connection to dopamine production. Researchers speculate that an underlying cause of ADHD is dysfunctional dopamine transmission. This means that the brain can’t receive dopamine correctly, leading to some emotional responses suffering.

Let's think about the symptoms present in ADHD. It is easy to understand how impacts on the chemicals that regulate our learning and motivation could result in inattention and hyperactivity. 

Dopamine Transporter Density

To best understand the connection between dopamine and ADHD, it is important to know about dopamine transporter density (DTD). Researchers reason why some people have ADHD is that they have an increased amount of dopamine transporters. Having a higher density of dopamine transporters in the brain results in lowered dopamine levels in the brain. A decreased amount of dopamine in the brain can result in a diagnosis of ADHD.

However, it is key to remember that not all who have a high amount of dopamine transporters will have ADHD. During an assessment, mental health professionals will focus on the presenting symptoms rather than the neurology of ADHD. 

ADHD Treatment

Here’s the good news: ADHD symptoms are treatable, resulting in much relief and improved quality of life.

Treatment will vary depending on the age of the person experiencing ADHD. However, major recommendations for all are medication, psychotherapy, and further education about the condition.

Stimulants and Non-Stimulants

A doctor will prescribe either a stimulant or a non-stimulant. A stimulant is very effective in quickly treating ADHD symptoms. A non-stimulant is a good option when someone has a bad reaction to a stimulant or when it simply doesn’t provide relief. Non-stimulants can take longer to begin working, but once they do, they’re a great choice that can help you feel better.

The recommended form of psychotherapy is cognitive-behavioral therapy. This therapy focuses on how our thoughts dictate our actions and explores ways to adjust our thinking to have greater control over our actions.

Individual psychotherapy treatment isn’t very effective in managing ADHD symptoms when it comes to child and teen treatment. Instead, experts recommend parental involvement and accommodations made in the classroom. That said, if your child or teen begins presenting symptoms of anxiety or depression in addition to ADHD, individual psychotherapy can be beneficial.

Coping With ADHD

ADHD can feel challenging, isolating, and frustrating. Knowledge is power, and the more you understand ADHD, the better. Keeping an open line of communication with your mental health care provider is a significant first step to learning more about this condition.

Consider joining a support group—building community with others can serve as a helpful reminder that you’re not alone. Finally, making your loved ones aware of your needs is a great way to bolster support. Allow those around you to lift you up, and don’t lose hope.

A Word From Verywell

Learning about our mental health can prove to be a scary and daunting task. You are never alone and should you lose hope, we're here to remind you that things can and will get better. If you find that you're having a hard time dealing with your diagnosis, please reach out to a mental health professional.

7 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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By Julia Childs Heyl, MSW
Julia Childs Heyl, MSW, is a clinical social worker and writer. As a writer, she focuses on mental health disparities and uses critical race theory as her preferred theoretical framework. In her clinical work, she specializes in treating people of color experiencing anxiety, depression, and trauma through depth therapy and EMDR (eye movement desensitization and reprocessing) trauma therapy.