Is it a neurological disorder?

ADHD affects brain development, causing a person to display certain behaviors and psychological states that are not generally present in neurotypical people.

Some sources classify ADHD as a neurological disorder on the basis that it affects neurological development. Others characterize it differently – for example, as psychiatric disorder or one neurobehavioural disorder.

Historically, physicians have used the term psychological to refer to conditions involving specific mental states, such as emotions, thoughts, and behaviors, that manifest through human interactions. Neurological was the term for medical conditions which have a clearer origin in the brain. Finally, psychiatric disorders were those which originated in the brain but had not easy biological explanation.

Researchers increasingly claim that this distinction does not make sense. Neurological disorders can have behavioral or emotional components, while psychological disorders can affect the body. Thus, ADHD is a neurological, psychological and psychiatric condition.

Regardless of how researchers classify ADHD, they tend to emphasize its neurological roots, including how it changes brain chemistry. ADHD is therefore also a developmental disorder.

Keep reading to learn more about the definition of ADHD as a neurological disorder, as well as the differences between neurological, psychological and psychiatric disorders.

Researchers have identified several ways in which the brains of people with ADHD differ from those of people without the condition. These differences concern:

  • Brain volume: People with ADHD have a slightly smaller brain volume than neurotypical people. A 2017 study found that these volume differences affected several areas of the brain, including the nucleus accumbens, caudate nucleus, hippocampus, amygdala, putamen, and amygdala. The differences were most significant in children.
  • Composition of the brain: ADHD changes the behavior of gray and white matter in the brain and reduces the volume of gray matter. It can also modify the behavior and structure of the prefrontal, occipital and parietal lobes. Gray matter is where most neuroprocessing takes place, while white matter communicates these processes to the rest of the body.
  • Neural networks: Brain signals travel through the brain in networks. ADHD has to do with changes in these networks that can affect functioning. In a Study 2021, people with ADHD exhibited changes in the neural networks of their gray and white matter. These changes were correlated with deficits in working memory and attention.
  • Neurotransmitters: Neurotransmitters are chemicals that carry signals through 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 Medication often act on this neurotransmitter.

Although several studies provide evidence of brain differences between people with ADHD and people with neurotypical disorders, these brain differences are not consistent and vary from person to person. In addition, it is not possible to generalize the results of large studies to an individual person.

As an experience Can change the brain, it is difficult to know if:

  • these brain differences cause ADHD
  • ADHD causes these brain differences
  • the experiences of people with ADHD change the behavior of their brains

In addition, other medical and psychiatric conditions, such as diabetes and substance use disorders, can also affect the brain. For this reason, it remains unclear whether these subtle brain differences are due to ADHD or something else.

Learn more about brain differences in people with ADHD.

Several other neurological disorders affect brain development, altering behavior and brain function early in life. They understand:

  • autism spectrum disorder, which affects mental health, social relationships, and communication
  • cerebral palsy
  • intellectual disability, which affects the ability to learn in many areas
  • learning disabilities, which affect specific areas of learning, such as reading
  • conduct disorder, which causes problematic or aggressive behavior
  • hearing and visual impairments, which alter or eliminate the ability to hear or see

People with ADHD often have other neurodevelopmental disorders. A Study 2020 out of 336 adults newly diagnosed with ADHD or autism found that 72.8% had at least one other mental health problem.

According to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 14% of children with ADHD are autistic and 1% have Gilles de la Tourette syndrome. Psychological diagnoses are even more common, with 52% of them having a behavior or conduct problem, 33% with anxiety and 17% with depression.

A article 2020 The paper points out that there is no clear line between neurodevelopmental disorders and other psychiatric disorders. The article reports that bipolar disorder and schizophrenia share a genetic link with neurodevelopmental disorders and may exist on a continuum with them.

This continuum suggests that neurodevelopmental disorders share common genetic origins and that various developmental processes can lead to different neurodevelopmental disorders. The genetic overlap of these diagnoses may help explain why they often occur together.

The difference between neurological and psychological disorders is unclear, 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.

Likewise, psychological conditions can affect the body, such as when depression causes physical pain or people with autism develop tics.

Some researchers now argue that the line between neurology and psychology is arbitrary and not based on real differences between the two groups of conditions.

Even for those who accept the difference, ADHD has both psychological and neurological characteristics. It correlates with specific differences in brain structure and chemistry, but also alters psychological states, causing impulsive, hyperactive and inattentive behaviors.

However, since it is usually psychologists and psychiatrists who treat the symptoms of ADHD, most people consider it a psychological or psychiatric disorder.

ADHD is a neurodevelopmental disease, which means that it affects a person’s development, altering their psychology and behavior. Adults and children with ADHD have differences in their brains compared to people with typical development.

They are also more likely to have other neurodevelopmental disorders. This fact indicates a neurological origin for ADHD. However, because the distinction between neurological and psychological disorders is murky and science may not support it, it is possible to classify ADHD as a neurological disorder, a psychological disorder, or both.

People seeking treatment for ADHD generally seek the support of a psychologist, psychiatrist or therapist rather than a neurologist. Neurologists usually treat conditions such as Parkinson’s disease and brain damage, not psychological disorders.


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