Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) Learning Center

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Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD)


Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) is a mental disorder that causes above-normal levels of hyperactive and disruptive behaviors. ADHD is often characterized by impulsive or hyperactive behavior. People with ADHD may have difficulties focusing their attention on a single task. They may also have a hard time sitting still for long periods of time.

For children, ADHD is generally associated with problems at school. Children with ADHD often have difficulty succeeding in a controlled classroom setting. Assignments can become difficult obstacles, instead of productive learning experiences. One in 10 children between ages 5 to 17 is diagnosed with ADHD, making this one of the most common childhood disorders in the United States.

Boys are more likely to have a diagnosis of ADHD than girls because they tend to exhibit hallmark symptoms of hyperactivity. Boys are two to three times more likely than girls to have an ADHD diagnosis. Although the majority of these children will retain symptoms into adulthood, many get better over time.

Despite this high prevalence, doctors and researchers still aren’t sure what causes the condition. Recent studies suggest that ADHD could be linked to dopamine dysfunction. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that helps control movements and emotions.

What are the symptoms of ADHD?

People with ADHD may:

  • have difficulty focusing or concentrating on tasks
  • be forgetful about completing tasks
  • be easily distracted by environmental sounds
  • have difficulty sitting still
  • interrupt people while they’re talking

Although some girls with ADHD may have the classic symptoms of hyperactivity, many don’t. Girls with ADHD may:

  • daydream frequently
  • have anxiety
  • have depression
  • be hyper-talkative rather than hyperactive
  • be overemotional

Adult ADHD symptoms can be somewhat different than those experienced by children. For example, adults with ADHD are unlikely to run and jump around. Generally, ADHD has a less severe profile in adults than in children, but there is still some debate about accurately diagnosing adult ADHD.

What are the causes of ADHD?

Researchers are still working to determine what causes ADHD. It’s believed to have neurological origins rather than environmental causes. Genetics may also play a role in whether a person has ADHD.

In the past, people thought that problems with a chemical balance in the brain may be the cause. People also thought it occurred due to a malfunction of the neurotransmitters that help regulate impulses and behavior.

What is the role of dopamine?

Dopamine is a chemical in the brain that helps to take signals from one nerve to the other. It plays a role in triggering emotional responses and movements. People have different kinds of dopamine receptors. These different receptors determine how you react to rewards or taking risks.

Recent research suggests that a reduction in dopamine is a factor in ADHD. One study found that the dopamine reward pathways of those with ADHD had fewer dopamine synaptic markers than those of people without ADHD. This contrasts with previous research, which suggested that dopamine acts inconsistently and unexpectedly in people with ADHD.

Other research suggests a structural difference in the brain. Findings indicate that people with ADHD have less gray matter volume. Gray matter includes the brain areas that help with:

  • speech
  • self-control
  • decision making
  • muscle control

How is ADHD diagnosed?

If you suspect that you or your child has ADHD, ask a school or qualified caregiver for an evaluation. Schools regularly assess children for disabilities that may be affecting a child’s educational performance.

You can also schedule an appointment with your child’s pediatrician and provide the doctor with notes and observations about your child’s behavior. If they suspect your child has ADHD, they may refer them to an ADHD specialist. Depending on the diagnosis, it may also be necessary to go to a psychiatrist or neurologist.

Types of ADHD

There is a wide range of behaviors that are symptomatic of ADHD. To make it easier to diagnose and treat, they have been grouped by the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders into three categories: inattentive behavior, above-normal activity level (hyperactivity), and lack of impulse control.

Predominantly Inattentive

This is a form of ADHD that used to be known as strong attention deficit disorder, or ADD. As the name suggests, people with this type of ADHD have extreme difficulty focusing, finishing tasks, and following instructions. Experts also think that many children with an inattentive form of ADHD may be overlooked because they don’t tend to disrupt the classroom. This form is most common among girls with ADHD.

Predominantly Hyperactive-Impulsive Type

People with this type exhibit primarily hyperactive and impulsive behavior such as fidgeting, interrupting, and an inability to wait their turn. Although inattention is less of a concern with this type of ADHD, people with predominantly hyperactive-impulsive ADHD may still find it difficult to focus on tasks.

Combined Hyperactive-Impulsive and Inattentive Type

This is the most common type of ADHD. People with this combined form of ADHD display a significant number of symptoms connected to all three behavioral categories. This includes an inability to pay attention, a tendency towards impulsiveness, and above-normal levels of activity and energy.

How is ADHD treated?

Treatment for ADHD can range from behavioral therapies to using medication.

In educational settings, teachers can map out individual guidelines for a student with ADHD. This may include allowing extra time for assignments and tests or developing a personal reward system. At home and in general, a consistent schedule with structure and regular expectations may benefit a person with ADHD.

Medication, including Ritalin, can be used in addition to other treatments. Medications for ADHD are designed to motivate neurotransmitters in a way that allows you to control impulses and actions.

What is the outlook?

ADHD symptoms may decrease or become less frequent as you age. Adults often find ways to manage ADHD through personal behavior modification. This can help you learn to concentrate when needed. Many people with ADHD learn to use their qualities, such as creativity, to their benefits.

Tips for coping with ADHD

If you have ADHD, you may find support by going to individual therapy or group therapy with people who have similar backgrounds. Your counselor can give you guidelines and suggestions for living with ADHD.

If you’re a parent or a spouse of someone with ADHD, you may find it helpful to go to family or behavioral therapy. It’s important to set good examples. Focus when you’re listening to a person with ADHD. Avoid multitasking and demonstrate how a person pays attention.

Here are some additional tips for coping with ADHD:

  • Get organized. Many people who have ADHD find that a schedule or structure of expectations makes their environment feel more nurturing.
  • Embrace individuality. Make a list of your good qualities or the good qualities of the person with ADHD. Plan outings and activities that encourage individual expression.
  • Learn more about the disorder. Organizations such as Children and Adults with Attention Deficit Disorder or the Attention Deficit Disorder Association provide tips for management, as well as the latest research.
Content licensed from:

Written by: Traci Angel
Published on Jul 29, 2010
Medically reviewed on Apr 05, 2015 by [Ljava.lang.Object;@61f75d9a

This feature is for informational purposes only and should not be used to replace the care and information received from your health care provider. Please consult a health care professional with any health concerns you may have.
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