ADHD and Dopamine

The Relationship Between ADHD and Dopamine

Studies show that people with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) have lower dopamine levels than people without ADHD. Learn more about the relationship between ADHD and dopamine. 

What Is ADHD?

ADHD is a neurodevelopmental cognitive brain disorder that can cause impulsivity, hyperactivity, attention difficulties, and problems with academic performance and social interactions. For example, school-age children and teens with the disorder may have trouble paying attention, focusing, concentrating, following directions, and sitting still. In contrast, adults with ADHD may have impulsive behavior, memory problems, and the inability to focus and concentrate.

Those with this disorder may act on impulse without thinking, lose things, and get frustrated easily. While ADHD is a type of brain disorder, it is defined as a behavioral disorder, which may be caused by ADHD’s lack of dopamine.

Dopamine is a neurochemical, which is a protein produced naturally by our bodies. When there is a deficit in this protein, we lose important feelings of happiness and emotional pleasure. A person with ADHD may not have any interest, motivation, or enthusiasm in things that most people would be excited about.

What Causes ADHD?

While the causes of ADHD and risk factors are not completely known, current research shows that the neurotransmitter known as dopamine may be a contributor to ADHD. Research shows a significant difference in dopamine levels between people who have ADHD and those that don’t. In fact, those with the disorder have lower levels of dopamine than those who do not have ADHD.

People with ADHD have a reduced concentration of the proteins known as dopamine transporter density (DTD) in the neurons of their brain. However, this does not mean that a person with low DTD levels has ADHD, but it is highly likely since it is a major risk factor.

Studies also suggest that genetic factors may be linked to ADHD. Scientists are also studying other possible risk factors and causes of the disorder, including brain injury.

dopamine molecular formula

What is Dopamine?

Dopamine is a neurotransmitter protein that your body makes for your nervous system to use as a messenger to send messages back and forth between nerve cells. For this reason, it is sometimes referred to as a chemical messenger. It plays a big part in how we think, make plans, focus, strive, find things interesting, remember things, pay attention, and even regulate our body movements. Our emotional responses are also regulated by dopamine, as it is responsible for our feelings of rewards and pleasure. In fact, it makes us feel motivated to take actions that lead to receiving specific rewards.

The human body spreads dopamine throughout the brain along four major pathways. Like most of the other systems in our bodies, it goes unnoticed until there is a problem.

Research suggests that when these neurotransmitters are imbalanced (we have too little or too much dopamine) and changes in the brains structure take place, it can lead to the development of serious neurological and mental health issues such as Parkinson’s disease, depression, schizophrenia, substance use disorder, and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.

Is There A Cure for ADHD?

While there is currently no cure for the condition, it is, however, treatable. There are medications that can help increase your levels of dopamine. By targeting dopamine transporters to raise ADHD dopamine levels, patients with ADHD may be able to focus and concentrate better.

Too much dopamine levels can reverse the effect, causing a person with ADHD to have an even harder time focusing and concentrating. This is why medications that play a role in increasing or decreasing levels of dopamine must be prescribed properly and monitored.

Who Is Affected By ADHD?

ADHD is more widely diagnosed in children. It is the most common disorder among children in the U.S. as an estimated 11 percent of kids between the ages of 4 and 17 have ADHD, which amounts to around 6.4 million children in America. However, adults are also affected by ADHD. Approximately one-third or more of children with ADHD carry it into adulthood and throughout their life,  yet the disorder is riskier for adults.

adhd and dopamine

How ADHD Affects Adults

In the past, it was believed that kids with ADHD would outgrow the disorder during adolescence since as children become teenagers, hyperactivity is often reduced. While this is the case since adults with ADHD often have fewer symptoms of hyperactivity, the other symptoms get even worse, including poor concentration, risk-taking, and impulsive behavior, which could have severe consequences in adulthood.

While most adults with ADHD have had it since childhood, there are many cases where symptoms developed later on in life as adults.

However, the neurodevelopmental disorder typically begins during childhood, but symptoms usually reduce with age for some people. Yet, there are some adults who continue to have extensive symptoms that interfere with their daily functioning, which can pose a major threat. These symptoms can be mild to major and may include restlessness, impulsiveness, difficulty in paying attention, focusing, and prioritizing. 

Adults who are incapable of controlling their impulses usually lose their patience and find it hard to drive in traffic or wait in line, which leads to outbursts of anger and uncontrollable mood swings. The inability to prioritize and focus can affect your job as it can lead to forgetting meetings, missing deadlines, and not being able to complete projects you started or achieve your goals.

Not only can ADHD affect your work, interfere with your daily life, and destroy your relationships, but it can also have detrimental effects on your loved ones as well.

All this can cause feelings of frustration, hopelessness, and anxiety, which can lead to other problems, such as depression, drug abuse, and even thoughts of suicide. The problem most adults face with ADHD is many are not even aware they have it. All they know is everything is a challenge.

Why ADHD Patients Are at High Risk for Substance Abuse

There are enough studies showing an increased risk of substance abuse for those with ADHD to confirm the validity. ADHD also contributes to rapid progression from initial drug use to addiction and abuse. Some of the reasons why ADHD is linked to drug use are as follows:

Low Dopamine Levels

Most drugs increase dopamine, giving users a feeling of euphoria, which is both rewarding, and pleasurable. Because ADHD dopamine-seeking patients don’t often get these benefits of sensation due to their low dopamine levels, they want more, and therefore, continue drug use.

To Alter Lack of Motivation and Energy

Low dopamine also causes a lack of motivation and reduced energy, which causes ADHD patients to look for ways to feel better and give them the enthusiasm to do more, so they turn to drugs and alcohol, thinking this will help.

Prescribed Medication

Some medications used to treat ADHD are controversial since they are stimulants that are as effective and addictive as some recreational drugs. Therefore, it is questionable whether this treatment increases the risk of substance use by setting the stage for drug use as patients look for ways to self-medicate.

Reduced Impulse Control 

People with ADHD find it hard to control their impulses, which is why it is challenging to avoid drugs and alcohol.

Behavioral Problems

Behavioral problems like stealing and lying are common with some ADHD patients. These behavioral patterns can influence patients to make bad decisions, such as abusing drugs.

Depression and Low Self Esteem

People with ADHD are challenged every day with performing daily tasks, remembering things, stabilizing their relationships, completing projects, cleaning their house, keeping up with hygiene, and more. Because they have no motivation to do anything, they will look to self-medicate with alcohol or drugs.

adhd treatment group therapy

Treating Both ADHD and Addiction

Treating adults with both ADHD and substance use disorder can be challenging because you can’t treat one without the other, both conditions must be treated simultaneously. However, with the treatment options available today, along with advanced medications, and expert psychologists, counselors, therapists, and other specialists, it is very possible.

Because every patient is unique with different characteristics, conditions, and symptoms, it is important to perform a comprehensive evaluation considering their history, medical conditions, behaviors, and more. After a full evaluation has been completed, a treatment plan can be considered that addresses each symptom and issue simultaneously.

That’s why a dual diagnosis treatment plan is crucial as it focuses on treating both disorders during the healing process. Stabilization of addictions should be the main goal before addressing other issues to improve the quality of life.

Other Treatment Options To Consider

Therapeutic approaches using cognitive-behavioral strategies can help address motivation.

Medication Treatment

The most commonly used medications for ADHD patients are stimulants like Ritalin and Adderall. These work by increasing levels of dopamine in the brain, which produces feelings of motivation and pleasure while decreasing hyperactivity. Anti-depressants may also be prescribed. But, rather than increasing dopamine, they decrease norepinephrine levels, which helps reduce stress.


Psychotherapy such as behavioral therapy, cognitive behavior therapy (CBT), and neurofeedback helps patients learn new coping mechanisms, how to handle their emotions, how to avoid negative thoughts, and how to manage their symptoms. It is a highly recommended approach for symptom management and healing.

Holistic Approach

Holistic methods focus on connecting with yourself and others in order to heal. Some techniques used include:

  • Animal therapy
  • Music and art therapy
  • Connecting with nature
  • Peaceful exercise like yoga
  • Meditation
  • Bonding in groups
  • Dietary and lifestyle changes

Get Effective Treatment from a Compassionate Caring Staff

If you are struggling with a dual diagnosis of ADHD and substance abuse, we can help. New Method Wellness offers the best treatment options for you that address both ADHD and substance abuse. We are committed to providing you with the best compassionate care and the most effective treatment options available so that you can get better fast and move on to enjoying life. We invite you to take the first step and contact us.

+1 (866) 951-1824