ADHD affects the development of the brain, causing a person to display certain behaviors and psychological states that do not generally present in neurotypical people.
Historically, doctors used the term psychological to refer to conditions involving specific mental states, such as emotions, thoughts, and behaviors, which present through human interactions. Neurological was the term for medical conditions that have a more clear-cut origin in the brain. Finally, psychiatric conditions were those that originated in the brain but had
Regardless of how researchers classify ADHD, they
Keep reading to learn more about defining ADHD as a neurological condition, as well as the differences between neurological, psychological, and psychiatric conditions.
Researchers have identified several ways in which the brains of people with ADHD differ from those of people without the condition. These differences relate to:
- Brain volume: People with ADHD have slightly lower brain volumes than neurotypical people. A
2017 studyfound that these volume differences affected several areas of the brain, including the accumbens nucleus, caudate nucleus, hippocampus, amygdala, putamen, and amygdala. The differences were most significant among children.
- Brain composition: ADHD changes the behavior of gray matter and white matter in the brain and
reduces the volume of gray matter. It may also change the behavior and structure of the prefrontal, occipital, and parietal lobes. Gray matter is where most neuroprocessing occurs, while white matter communicates these processes to the rest of the body.
- Neural networks: Brain signals travel through the brain in networks. ADHD has a link with changes in these networks that may affect functioning. In a
2021 study, people with ADHD had changes in neural networks in their gray and white matter. These changes correlated with deficits in working memory and attention.
- Neurotransmitters: Neurotransmitters are chemicals that carry signals across a nerve synapse. People with ADHD have different levels of several neurotransmitters, including norepinephrine and dopamine. Dopamine plays a key role in pleasure, motivation, and reward, and
ADHD drugsoften act on this neurotransmitter.
Although several studies provide evidence of brain differences between people with ADHD and neurotypical people, these brain differences
- these brain differences cause ADHD
- ADHD causes these brain differences
- the experiences of people with ADHD alter the behavior of their brain
Furthermore, other medical and psychiatric conditions — such as diabetes and substance use disorders — may also affect the brain. Due to this, it remains unclear whether these subtle brain differences are due to ADHD or something else.
Several other neurological disorders affect the development of the brain, altering behavior and brain function early in life. They include:
- autism spectrum disorder, which affects mental health, social relationships, and communication
- cerebral palsy
- intellectual disability, which affects the ability to learn across many domains
- learning disabilities, which affect specific domains of learning, such as reading
- conduct disorder, which causes problematic or aggressive behavior
- hearing and vision impairments, which alter or eliminate the ability to hear or see
People with ADHD often have other neurodevelopmental disorders. A
According to the
This continuum suggests that neurodevelopmental disorders share some common genetic origins and that various developmental processes may result in different neurodevelopmental disorders. The overlapping genetics of these diagnoses may help explain why they often occur together.
The difference between neurological and psychological conditions is not clear, as a continuum of disorders affects the brain and behavior. Conditions that most doctors consider neurological, such as Parkinson’s disease, can also affect psychological states and behavior.
Some researchers now argue that the line between neurology and psychology is arbitrary and
Even for those who accept the difference, though, ADHD has both psychological and neurological characteristics. It correlates with specific differences in brain structure and chemistry but also changes psychological states, causing impulsive, hyperactive, and inattentive behaviors.
However, because it is typically psychologists and psychiatrists who treat the symptoms of ADHD, most people view it as a psychological or psychiatric condition.
ADHD is a neurodevelopmental condition, which means that it affects a person’s development, altering their psychology and their behavior. Adults and children with ADHD display differences in their brains compared with people with typical development.
They are also more likely to have other neurodevelopmental disorders. This fact points to a neurological origin for ADHD. However, as the distinction between neurological and psychological conditions is murky, and the science may not support it, it is possible to classify ADHD as a neurological condition, a psychological disorder, or both.
People seeking treatment for ADHD typically seek support from a psychologist, psychiatrist, or therapist rather than a neurologist. Neurologists typically treat conditions such as Parkinson’s disease and brain injuries, not psychological disorders.