Child Development

What’s the Link Between ADHD and Dopamine?

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Dopamine is a neurotransmitter in our brains. Our nervous systems use it to send messages from our nerve cells. Dopamine contributes to how we feel pleasure, plan, focus, and feel motivated.

When there is too little or too much dopamine, it can cause and indicate health issues. Research has shown a connection between too little dopamine and ADHD. 

In this article, I’ll walk through what ADHD is, and how ADHD and dopamine are related. I’ll also go into the effects of low dopamine, and how to increase it. Lastly, I’ll discuss ADHD treatment and the causes of ADHD. 

What is ADHD?

Attention deficit disorder (ADHD), is a neurodevelopmental disorder that affects the ability to focus and sit still. It can also affect impulse control. Symptoms oftentimes interfere with daily life.

The condition is considered common as nearly 8.8% of children are diagnosed with ADHD in the United States. It usually begins in childhood and continues through to adulthood. However, symptoms may change as the person grows older.

ADHD and Dopamine

The causes of ADHD are not fully known yet. However, researchers have studied the effects of dopamine in people with ADHD and those without. It’s been found that people with ADHD have lower levels of dopamine compared to those who don’t have the condition.

It’s believed the reason behind this is that people who have ADHD and aren’t taking medication for the condition, have higher concentrations of dopamine transporters, also known as dopamine transporter density (DTD). Higher DTD, results in lower amounts of dopamine, possibly leading to ADHD. This does not guarantee the condition, however, and a medical diagnosis is required.

What research shows

An early study conducted in 1999, showed a 70 percent increase in DTD in adults with ADHD compared with study participants who didn’t have ADHD. The study shows that an increase in DTD may be a helpful tool in diagnosing and treating ADHD.

Since then, other studies have been conducted on the relationship between ADHD and dopamine. More specifically, a genetic variation called DAT1; is a gene that increases the activity of dopamine transporters

The DNA Learning Center showed that medications that increase levels of dopamine caused an inhibition of the motor cortex, which is the area of the brain that controls voluntary movement. The effect was more significant in those who had the DAT1 variation. The DAT1 variation may be associated with mood instability in adults, which is a common symptom of ADHD

Other effects of low dopamine 

Dopamine is a powerful and important neurotransmitter. Below, I’ll walk through how dopamine can impact our health.

Schizophrenia

Schizophrenia is a chronic mental health disorder that causes people to interpret reality abnormally. It can result in delusions, hallucinations, and extreme disordered thinking. 

A study conducted in 2014 showed a correlation between a type of dopamine receptor and symptoms caused by schizophrenia such as speech changes, loss of pleasure, and poor motivation. On the other hand, it’s been shown that increased levels of dopamine can cause hallucinations and delusions.

Parkinson’s Disease

Parkinson’s disease is a progressive nervous system disorder that affects movement. It occurs due to the loss of neurons in the area of the brain that produces dopamine.

Dopamine plays an important role when it comes to regulating body movement. The lack of dopamine is responsible for many symptoms associated with Parkinson’s Disease.

The main symptoms of Parkinson’s include:

  • Tremor, or shaking, in the hands, arms, legs, and head
  • Stiffness in the muscles, particularly in the arms
  • Slower movement
  • Balance and coordination difficulties, which can increase the risk of falls

Depression

Depression, or major depressive disorder, is a mental health disorder causing a feeling of sadness and hopelessness. It also causes a lack of interest in activities that were once enjoyed. Research suggests that ADHD and dysregulation in dopamine production can influence the development of depression.

Drug Use

Feeling pleasure is how a healthy brain identifies beneficial behaviors, including eating, socializing, or exercising. This is all thanks to dopamine. Drugs produce large amounts of dopamine in the brain, reinforcing the feeling of pleasure when consuming the drug. When large amounts of drugs are consumed, it essentially trains the brain to seek drugs above other healthier goals or activities.  

Other Causes of ADHD

The exact cause of ADHD is unknown. However, there are risk factors that may cause a person to be more susceptible to developing the condition.

Genetics

Twin and family studies have shown a strong correlation between genetics and ADHD. If your parents or siblings have ADHD, you have a higher risk of having ADHD. The exact genes that cause ADHD have not been discovered yet. 

While there is likely more than one gene responsible for ADHD, the DRD4 gene is being closely researched due to its effects on dopamine receptors. It’s possible that some people with ADHD have variations of this gene.

Neurotoxins

Neurotoxic chemicals, such as lead or certain pesticides, may play a role in ADHD. Lead exposure can affect a child’s ability to learn, and possibly inattention, hyperactivity, and impulsivity. Organophosphate pesticide exposure can also put a child at a greater risk of ADHD.

Lifestyle during pregnancy

According to a study conducted in 2012, a child is more likely to develop ADHD if they were exposed to alcohol, drugs, or cigarettes while in the womb. This suggests a strong link between the importance of brain development before the child is even born.

How to Increase Dopamine

There are a few ways you can naturally increase dopamine. Please note that these methods are not intended to be used as medical advice.

Eat protein

Tyrosine is an amino acid that’s critical in producing dopamine. Another amino acid, phenylalanine, can also make tyrosine. Both of these amino acids can be found in protein-rich foods, such as turkey, beef, soy, legumes, dairy, and eggs.

Listen to music

Stimulate the production of dopamine in your brain by listening to your favorite music. Studies have shown that listening to music increases dopamine receptor activity, which involves the reward and pleasure areas of the brain.

Get enough sleep

Sleep impacts our brains more than we think. Research shows that when we stay up during the night, dopamine levels drop significantly in the morning. It’s important to get between 7 to 9 hours of sleep per night in order to support healthy dopamine production.

Meditate

Meditation involves clearing your mind and paying attention to the present moment. While research is still new, it’s been suggested that meditating for one hour can increase dopamine levels by 65%. You can meditate while standing, sitting, or walking. Meditation can also benefit mental and physical health as well. 

Get more sunlight

Sun exposure is important when it comes to dopamine levels. When you don’t get enough sunlight in the winter, you may feel sad or depressed. A study found that 68 healthy adults who received the most sunlight exposure in the previous 30 days had the highest density of dopamine receptors in the reward and movement regions of their brains.

ADHD Treatment 

While it’s never a bad thing to increase dopamine levels on your own using lifestyle methods, it’s important to treat ADHD with a medical professional. Treatment for ADHD in children and adults includes stimulant medications and behavioral therapy or psychological counseling. 

Stimulant medications

Stimulant medications are the most commonly prescribed drugs for treating ADHD.

Some examples of these medications are: 

  • Amphetamines: Including dextroamphetamine (Dexedrine), dextroamphetamine-amphetamine (Adderall or Adderall XR, Mydayis), and lisdexamfetamine (Vyvanse).
  • Methylphenidates: Including methylphenidate (Concerta, Ritalin, others) and dexmethylphenidate (Focalin).

Stimulant medications may pose certain health risks, so talk to your health provider if this concerns you.

Behavioral therapy or psychological counseling 

Behavioral therapy is used to treat ADHD in children. In behavioral therapy, a mental health professional will work with the child and parent to manage the child’s symptoms.

Psychological counseling is used to treat ADHD in adults and can support coping with hard situations, improve self-esteem, reduce impulsive behaviors, and improve time management skills.

Takeaway

Dopamine plays an important role in our lives, and research supports the impact it has on our brains. ADHD and dopamine are connected in which people with ADHD may have lower levels of the neurotransmitter.