At a Glance: ADHD and the Brain

By Julie Rawe

66Found this helpful

Researchers are learning more and more about how differences in brain development and brain function are involved in ADHD (also known as ADD). This graphic can help you understand how your child’s brain works—and why ADHD isn’t simply a matter of willpower.

66Found this helpful
At a Glance: ADHD and the Brain.
ADHD is not related to intelligence. In fact, children with ADHD can be very smart.
But differences in brain structures, function and chemistry make it harder for kids with ADHD to work on a task unless they’re really interested in it. See how these differences help explain issues with attention and self-control.
Brain Structures.
Developmental Lags With ADHD.
Research has shown that some parts of the brain tend to be a little smaller and/or take longer to mature in children with ADHD. By young adulthood, these brain regions tend to be similar in size to those found in adults without ADHD.
The FRONTAL/FOREHEAD AREA is on the left side of the picture.
The BACK OF THE HEAD is on the right side of the picture.
Beginning at the top and then moving clockwise.
Cerebral cortex.
Large outer layer of the brain that contains several areas that are important in the brain’s self-management system. These areas take longer to mature in kids with ADHD and might not be organized as efficiently in adults with ADHD.
Caudate nucleus.
Involved in decision making and purposeful behavior.
Important for long-term and working memory.
Plays a key role in emotional control and in prioritizing action.
Helps with learning, memory and regulating movement.
Nucleus accumbens.
Involved in mood, motivation and experiencing pleasure.
Brain Networks. Trouble Shifting Gears With ADHD.
Brain structures need to work together to do things like shift focus or read or write. Different parts of the brain are connected by networks of neurons (brain cells). This is called functional connectivity.
Some neural networks or pathways take longer to develop or may be less efficient in kids with ADHD. One example involves the default mode network, which plays a key role in resting the brain. With ADHD, the brain takes longer to develop the mechanism that “switches off” default network activity when focus is needed. Another example involves the frontoparietal network, which is often referred to as the “executive control circuit” because of its role in making decisions and learning new tasks. Differences in these networks may help explain issues such as mind-wandering and lack of motivation or impulse control.
Brain Chemistry.
Getting the Message Across With ADHD.
The graphic on the left shows a sending neuron and a receiving neuron. The graphic on the right is a close-up of neurotransmitters moving between the sending neuron and the receiving neuron.
Brain networks are made up of cells that aren’t hardwired together. Messages have to jump from one neuron to the next. To do this, the sending neuron releases tiny amounts of chemicals called neurotransmitters. These chemicals carry the message across a small gap between brain cells.
With ADHD, neurotransmitters such as dopamine and norepinephrine often get sucked back up by the sending neuron too quickly, before a good connection is made. Or not enough of these transmitters get released. Medication may help improve these connections in many children with ADHD—especially when they need to focus on tasks they don’t find very interesting. Another way to help is to focus school projects on topics that tap into kids’ natural interests.
As researchers use brain scans to learn more about ADHD, it’s important to note that science has not yet reached the point where these scans can be used to diagnose kids with ADHD. To learn how kids are evaluated for ADHD and to get practical tips on what parents and schools can do to help, go to This free resource was founded by 15 nonprofits to help parents of the 1 in 5 kids with learning and attention issues. Understood is not affiliated with any pharmaceutical company.
Graphic of: At a Glance- ADHD and the Brain
Graphic of: At a Glance- ADHD and the Brain

About the Author

Photo of Julie Rawe

Julie Rawe is a senior editor at Understood.

Reviewed by

Portrait of Dr. Nelson Dorta

Nelson J. Dorta, Ph.D., is a pediatric neuropsychologist and an assistant professor of clinical psychology at Columbia University.

Did you find this helpful?

What’s New on Understood