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Peering Into the ADHD Brain

 

Doctors around the world are slowly uncovering the secrets of the ADHD brain. Advanced brain imaging techniques (such as PET-, SPECT- and MRI scans) allow us to look at brain activity in closer detail. However, despite tremendous progress in the field, today’s brain imaging technologies remain limited.

It is confusing, to say the least, that some researchers are convinced that ADHD is the result of a brain dysfunction, while others say there is no substantial evidence to validate it as a disorder. Despite the lack of unanimity amongst doctors, here are some of recent findings in this field.

 

The Frontal Lobe

Current ADHD brain research has concluded that those affected by ADHD have difficulty regulating their behavior due to a dysfunction in the frontal lobe (amongst other areas of the brain).

The frontal lobe is the executive center of the brain and is comparable to the CEO of a company. It manages, plans, organizes and coordinates all executive functions. It is responsible for operations such as reasoning, judgement, problem solving and impulse control. Simply put, the frontal lobe is where we take what we know and we apply it in our daily life.

Whereas the non-ADHD brain connects the frontal lobe with the other brain regions in a coherent manner, the ADHD brain appears to separate them. This suggests that ADHD is not correlated with a lack of intelligence or knowledge – people with ADHD just seem unable to use their previously acquired knowledge with the same degree of effectiveness than those without the condition.

Another ADHD symptom related to this brain region is the inability to stop specific actions or thoughts – even when nothing in the environment gives reason to continue it. This behavior is exhibited in a variety of ways including trouble shifting attention, persistent negative thoughts, excessive worrying, inflexibility, argumentativeness and compulsive behavior.

 

The Prefrontal Cortex

One specific part of the frontal lobe, called the prefrontal cortex, exhibits very peculiar behavior in people with ADHD. When the non-ADHD brain engages in a task demanding focus and prioritization, the prefrontal cortex is activated. However, when people with ADHD engage in the same task, activity in the prefrontal cortex decreases. The Prefrontal Cortex is involved in:

  • Focus
  • Forethought
  • Impulse control
  • Planning
  • Judgment
  • Empathy
  • Insight

The prefrontal cortex helps us set a goal and establish a plan to reach it – consistently overtime and despite obstacles, the prefrontal cortex assists in making that goal happen. Problems in the prefrontal cortex are associated with typical ADHD symptoms like short attention span, impulsiveness, procrastination, disorganization and poor judgment.

 

The Anterior Cingulate Cortex

Another problem area in the ADHD brain is the anterior cingulate cortex. This part of the brain is located around the corpus callosum (a bundle of nerves that relays neural signals between the right and left cerebral hemispheres). It is part of the limbic system, which helps us:

  • Form and regulate emotions
  • Process and memorize information
  • Regulate behavior
  • Sustain motivation

The anterior cingulate cortex assists us in making decisions in social situations. It allows us to align our behavior with our long-term well being by managing the social consequences of our actions. In non-ADHDers, the cingulate cortex helps regulate how we deal with emotional conflict. When a particular situation elicits an emotional reaction (that may have a negative effect on our long-term welfare), this brain region is activated to moderate our behavior. Brain scans of those with ADHD show significantly less activity in the anterior cingulate cortex, even when circumstances require its activation. This is why people with ADHD may have difficulty regulating their behavior during social-emotional conflicts. It can also cause them to be:

  • easily frustrated
  • impatient
  • intolerant
  • excitable

Holistic healing methods like mindfulness are aimed at overriding the inability of the anterior cingulate cortex to govern the (emotional) limbic system.

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