Skip to Content

What is the chemical imbalance that causes ADHD?

Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) is a neurodevelopmental disorder characterized by inattention, hyperactivity and impulsivity. It is one of the most common childhood disorders, affecting around 5% of children globally. The exact cause of ADHD is still not fully understood, but research suggests that it likely arises from a combination of genetic, environmental and biological factors that affect brain development and functioning. One prominent theory is that ADHD is caused by an imbalance or deficiency in certain neurotransmitters, particularly dopamine and norepinephrine. Neurotransmitters are chemical messengers that help regulate many functions in the brain including attention, reward, movement and motivation. This article will provide an overview of the evidence for a chemical imbalance in ADHD and what specific neurotransmitters may be involved.

The Dopamine Hypothesis

The dopamine hypothesis of ADHD proposes that the disorder arises from low levels of dopamine or deregulation of the dopamine pathways in the brain. Dopamine is a catecholamine neurotransmitter involved in motivation, reward, attention and movement control. The evidence for the dopamine theory comes from several key research findings:

  • Genetic studies show that people with ADHD are more likely to have variants in genes related to dopamine transmission such as DRD4 and DAT1.
  • Brain imaging research has found abnormalities in dopamine networks in the brains of those with ADHD.
  • ADHD medications like stimulants (e.g. Ritalin) increase dopamine signaling and are effective at reducing ADHD symptoms.
  • Drugs that deplete dopamine like reserpine can induce ADHD-like symptoms.
  • Dopamine agonists used to treat Parkinson’s disease like bromocriptine can improve ADHD symptoms.

Overall, anomalies in dopamine signaling appear central to ADHD neurobiology. However, dopamine dysfunction alone cannot fully explain all the symptoms and complexity of ADHD. Other neurotransmitters are likely also involved.

The dopamine pathways affected in ADHD

There are several key dopamine projections in the brain that may be altered in ADHD:

  • Mesocortical pathway – Connects the ventral tegmental area to the prefrontal cortex. Important for motivation, impulse control and cognitive function. Underactivity may explain inattention and poor inhibitory control in ADHD.
  • Mesolimbic pathway – Connects the ventral tegmental area to the nucleus accumbens. Plays a role in motivation and reward processing. Dysfunction may underlie problems with motivation and reward dependency in ADHD.
  • Nigrostriatal pathway – Connects the substantia nigra to the basal ganglia. Involved in motor control. Impairment may relate to hyperactivity symptoms.
  • Tuberoinfundibular pathway– Connects the hypothalamus and pituitary gland. Regulates prolactin secretion. Dysfunction may contribute to inconsistent symptoms in ADHD.

The Norepinephrine Hypothesis

In addition to dopamine, norepinephrine (noradrenaline) dysregulation also appears implicated in ADHD pathophysiology. Norepinephrine is important for arousal, alertness and sustained attention. Evidence that norepinephrine may be altered in ADHD includes:

  • Some genetic variants associated with ADHD are found in norepinephrine transporter and receptor genes.
  • Atomoxetine, a norepinephrine reuptake inhibitor, is an effective ADHD treatment.
  • Clonidine, which reduces norepinephrine signaling, can worsen ADHD symptoms.
  • Norepinephrine agonists like guanfacine can improve ADHD symptoms.

The prefrontal cortex, which plays a major role in attention and inhibitory control, receives dense norepinephrine input from the locus coeruleus. Dysfunction in this norepinephrine system may underpin attention deficits and poor impulse control in ADHD.

Other Neurotransmitters

Serotonin is another monoamine neurotransmitter that may factor into ADHD pathophysiology. Serotonin is involved in mood, appetite, sleep and impulse control. Some studies show abnormalities in the serotonin system in those with ADHD. Certain serotonin receptor genes have also been associated with ADHD. Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) like fluoxetine are sometimes used as alternative ADHD medications, suggesting serotonin may play a role. However, more research is needed to confirm if serotonin imbalances directly contribute to ADHD.

There is also some limited evidence that altered glutamate and GABA signaling could be involved in ADHD. Glutamate and GABA are the brain’s main excitatory and inhibitory neurotransmitters. Imbalances in their pathways may disrupt the excitatory-inhibitory balance in the brain that is needed for proper impulse control and filtering of distractions. But overall, their role in ADHD is not well-defined.

Neurotransmitter Interactions

While the dopaminergic and noradrenergic systems appear most implicated in ADHD, it is unlikely a single neurotransmitter is solely responsible. ADHD likely arises from complex interactions between the dopamine, norepinephrine and other signaling systems. Some ways neurotransmitters may interact in ADHD include:

  • Norepinephrine may regulate and interact with dopamine signaling. Some effects of ADHD stimulant medications may occur through norepinephrine’s action on dopamine.
  • Serotonin and dopamine systems have reciprocal interactions and serotonin may modulate dopamine release.
  • Glutamate and GABA balance is maintained through interactions with monoamines like dopamine and serotonin.

In general, there is significant cross-talk between neurotransmitter pathways that allows them to work together to coordinate brain functions. Dysfunction in one system can potentially throw off the balance in interacting neurotransmitter networks, compounding ADHD impairments.

Neurodevelopmental Factors

While an imbalance in neurotransmitters represents an underlying mechanism, it does not fully explain what causes these chemical alterations to emerge. ADHD is currently considered a neurodevelopmental disorder, meaning it arises from deviations in early brain development. Some potential neurodevelopmental factors that could lead to the neurotransmitter changes seen in ADHD include:

  • Genetic – Variations in genes involved in dopamine, norepinephrine and other neurotransmitter systems could make children more susceptible.
  • Environmental – Early exposure to toxins like lead, pesticides or smoking could affect developing neurotransmitter systems.
  • Brain injury – Traumatic brain injury or lack of oxygen at birth could damage developing neurotransmitter networks.
  • Connectivity – Altered neural connectivity between brain regions could disrupt coordination between neurotransmitter systems.

There are likely complex interactions between genetic vulnerabilities and environmental influences during the prenatal, perinatal and early childhood periods that shift brain development onto an abnormal trajectory. These neurodevelopmental factors lead to structural and functional brain changes that ultimately manifest as chemical imbalances and the symptoms of ADHD.

Neurotransmitter Imbalance or Dysfunction?

It is important to note that ADHD is not likely caused by a simple deficiency of dopamine or norepinephrine, but rather more subtle dysfunctions in these neurotransmitter networks. Many studies have failed to find clear reductions in overall dopamine or norepinephrine levels in those with ADHD. However, more specific abnormalities have been identified, such as:

  • Reduced dopamine receptors and transporters in specific brain regions
  • Altered activity of enzymes involved in neurotransmitter synthesis and breakdown
  • Abnormal dopamine and norepinephrine release patterns
  • Dysfunctional dopamine and norepinephrine gene expression

Therefore, the term “neurotransmitter dysfunction” may be more accurate than “imbalance”. Even small perturbations in neurotransmitter systems can disrupt their finely tuned circuits and lead to the symptoms of ADHD due to the intricate molecular components involved in neurotransmission.

Brain Imaging of Neurotransmitter Alterations

Modern brain imaging techniques have provided insights into the underlying neurotransmitter abnormalities in ADHD. Positron emission tomography (PET) can directly measure components of neurotransmitter systems, like transporters, receptors and enzymes. Single photon emission computed tomography (SPECT) and functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) can also measure indirect indices of neurotransmitter function. Some key findings include:

  • Reduced striatal dopamine transporter levels measured by PET.
  • Decreased dopamine D2/D3 receptor availability in the reward pathways.
  • Reduced dopamine synthesis capacity in prefrontal and striatal regions.
  • Altered dopaminergic response to stimulant drugs.
  • Abnormal frontal lobe blood flow responses related to catecholamines.

These molecular imaging techniques have consistently identified dysregulation in dopaminergic and noradrenergic neural circuits, particularly in executive function areas of the prefrontal cortex. The imaging evidence further implicates these catecholamine neurotransmitter systems in the pathology of ADHD.

Neurotransmitter Imbalances Across ADHD Presentations

The main subtypes of ADHD listed in the DSM-5 manual are:

  • Predominantly inattentive
  • Predominantly hyperactive/impulsive
  • Combined presentation

Interestingly, differences in neurotransmitter abnormalities have been observed between the ADHD presentations:

ADHD Subtype Main Neurotransmitter Findings
Inattentive Reduced dopamine and norepinephrine signaling in prefrontal cortex
Hyperactive/Impulsive Low dopamine in the striatum and reward pathways
Combined Widespread dopamine and norepinephrine deficits across multiple brain regions and pathways

This suggests distinct neurochemical profiles may underlie the different ADHD presentations, though considerable overlap exists. The combined type exhibits the most pervasive neurotransmitter abnormalities, consistent with it being the most severe form of ADHD in terms of impairment.

Neurotransmitter Imbalances Across the Lifespan

ADHD is considered a lifelong neurodevelopmental disorder. However, there are differences in how neurotransmitter dysregulation may manifest across the lifespan:

  • Childhood – Abnormal dopamine and norepinephrine signaling primarily found in the prefrontal cortex.
  • Adolescence – Emerging imbalances in subcortical dopamine pathways, like the reward system.
  • Adulthood – Widespread catecholamine deficits across cortical and subcortical regions.

As ADHD persists from childhood into adulthood, deficits in dopamine and norepinephrine likely become more widespread and pronounced throughout the brain. Persisting neurochemical abnormalities could explain why many children with ADHD continue exhibiting symptoms as adults.

Neurotransmitters and ADHD Symptom Expression

The interplay between different neurotransmitter systems is likely responsible for the complex behavioral symptoms observed in ADHD. Here is the role some neurotransmitters may play in specific ADHD characteristics:

ADHD Symptom Associated Neurotransmitter(s)
Inattention Norepinephrine, acetylcholine
Hyperactivity Dopamine, serotonin
Impulsivity Dopamine, serotonin, glutamate
Disorganization Acetylcholine, glutamate
Poor motivation Dopamine, norepinephrine
Emotional dysregulation Serotonin, glutamate

No single neurotransmitter can explain the diverse symptoms of ADHD. The interplay between dopamine, norepinephrine, serotonin, acetylcholine, glutamate and GABA results in the complex ADHD phenotype. Targeting multiple neurotransmitter systems provides the most effective pharmacologic management of ADHD symptoms.

Neurotransmitter-Based ADHD Treatments

Given the compelling evidence that ADHD arises from dysfunctional neurotransmitter signaling, especially dopamine and norepinephrine, most ADHD medications target these catecholamine systems:

  • Stimulants – Increase dopamine and norepinephrine by blocking their reuptake or promoting their release.
  • Atomoxetine – Selective norepinephrine reuptake inhibitor.
  • Guanfacine – Stimulates norepinephrine receptors directly.
  • Clonidine – Stimulates inhibitory autoreceptors, reducing norepinephrine signaling.

The efficacy of these drugs that rectify catecholamine imbalance provides proof of concept that altering neurotransmitter function can ameliorate ADHD symptoms. But current ADHD drugs have limitations in tolerability and patient response. New treatments targeting dopamine, norepinephrine and associated systems with greater precision are still needed.

Non-Pharmacologic Treatments

While not targeting neurotransmitters directly, some non-drug therapies for ADHD may act by normalizing neurotransmitter dysregulation and associated neuronal dysfunctions. Such therapies include:

  • Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) – May remediate cognitive deficits and normalize function in impaired prefrontal brain regions.
  • Neurofeedback – Allows voluntary regulation of brain activity patterns.
  • Exercise – Releases catecholamines, serotonin and endorphins that may compensate for deficiencies.
  • Diet – Omega-3s, antioxidants and micronutrients support healthy neurotransmitter function.
  • Mindfulness – Can strengthen prefrontal executive control networks.

While less potent than medications, research shows these therapies can still improve ADHD symptoms, potentially by targeting brain changes downstream of the core neurotransmitter abnormalities.

The Complex Neurochemistry of ADHD

In summary, ADHD has complex origins but substantial evidence points to dysfunction in dopamine, norepinephrine and associated neurotransmitter networks in the prefrontal cortex and subcortical regions as central to the disorder. However, there is considerable heterogeneity in the neurochemical deficits observed across patients and ADHD subtypes. There likely are multiple pathways of abnormal neurotransmitter signaling and interaction that can produce the ADHD phenotype. ADHD treatments should aim to restore the balance in these delicate and intricate neurotransmitter systems in the brain.


ADHD arises from neurodevelopmental changes that lead to dysregulation of key neurotransmitters, especially dopamine and norepinephrine. Imbalances in these catecholamine systems impair cognitive and behavior control networks in the prefrontal cortex and subcortical regions. This manifests in the hallmark symptoms of inattention, hyperactivity, and impulsivity. The precise nature and origin of the chemical imbalances underlying ADHD is still being elucidated. But the evidence to date points to disruption in dopamine and norepinephrine neurotransmission as the primary neurochemical basis of ADHD. Treatments targeting these neurotransmitter systems can restore function and reduce ADHD symptoms. However, the complex neurobiology of ADHD demands more personalized and innovative treatment approaches in the future.