ADHD symptoms and treatments appear to be connected to levels of the neurotransmitter dopamine.

Share on Pinterest
chee gin tan/Getty Images

People with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) may have different levels of dopamine than neurotypical people.

Medications that treat ADHD symptoms also typically affect neurotransmitters in the brain, including dopamine.

If you live with ADHD, understanding the connection between your condition and dopamine may help you better figure out how your brain works and what treatments might be right for you.

Medical professionals are still trying to fully understand the role of dopamine levels in ADHD. But ADHD and dopamine do appear linked.

Older research in 2009 suggests that people with ADHD may have lower levels of dopamine.

Dopamine is a chemical in the brain — aka a neurotransmitter — that plays a role in experiencing happiness and pleasure. Pleasurable activities, such as socializing and exercising, can raise levels of dopamine, making you more likely to do those things again.

The brain releases dopamine when you engage in pleasurable behaviors.

A study in 2008 found that people with ADHD can sometimes have genes that lead to a lack of dopamine.

People who have a dopamine receptor gene variation called 7R are believed to be more likely to engage in behaviors that could have harmful consequences — like financial risk taking or heavy alcohol use. According to 2018 research, these people may be more likely to have ADHD as well.

Note that a lack of dopamine is only one potential risk factor for developing ADHD. Other neurotransmitters are also involved, as are environmental and genetic factors.

People often use medication to help them manage their ADHD symptoms, like impulsivity or trouble focusing.

Scientists have used the knowledge we have about ADHD and the brain to determine what types of meds are most helpful for treating ADHD. Some ADHD medications increase dopamine levels in the brain.

Stimulants — which increase dopamine levels — are often prescribed for ADHD because they help increase focus.

Some common stimulants include:

Some people also use non-stimulants to manage ADHD. If you have substance use issues or may be more likely to misuse a stimulant, non-stimulants may be recommended.

Atomoextine (Strattera) is one alternative to stimulants.

A doctor may also prescribe antidepressant medications to increase dopamine levels in the brain. Since antidepressants aren’t approved to formally treat ADHD, this would be considered off-label use.

Another reason antidepressants may be used is because ADHD and depression can occur together. About 18.6% of adults with ADHD may also have depression.

Meds are just one tool to manage ADHD. You may also benefit from therapy to work on coping strategies and manage any other mental health conditions that happen alongside it, such as depression.

If you decide to try medication for ADHD, consider reaching out to a healthcare professional who has experience with ADHD. Especially in the beginning, it will be helpful to have someone knowledgeable to ask questions, monitor changes to your symptoms, and discuss potential side effects.

Having lower levels of dopamine is just one possible factor for developing ADHD. Other factors could also increase someone’s chances of having ADHD.

Causes and risk factors for ADHD include:

  • genetics (it may run in families)
  • childhood exposure to environmental toxins, such as lead
  • tobacco, drug, or alcohol use during pregnancy
  • brain injury
  • exposure to environmental hazards during pregnancy

People with ADHD may have lower levels of dopamine in their brains — a neurotransmitter that plays a role in pleasure, reward, and mood.

While researchers don’t fully understand the link between dopamine and ADHD, some ADHD medications like stimulants increase dopamine levels and have been shown to improve ADHD symptoms.

If you think you might benefit from an ADHD med, you can always reach out to a healthcare professional to discuss medication and other treatment options.