Attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder pathophysiology
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ADHD appears to be highly heritable, although one-fifth of all cases are caused by trauma or exposure to toxins. Evidence suggests that ADHD is a heterogeneous disorder, meaning that several causes could create very similar symptomology. Although there is evidence for dopamine abnormalities in ADHD, it is not clear whether abnormalities of the dopamine system are a molecular abnormality of ADHD or a secondary consequence of ADHD.
- The exact pathogenesis of ADHD is not fully understood. It is believed that ADHD is caused by a complex interaction between genetic and environmental factors. A meta-analysis of studies of functional and structural magnetic resonance imaging has identified several pathologies.
- Common genetic variation accounts for around 75% of cases of ADHD. Loci on chromosomes 7, 11, 12, 15, 16, and 17 are associated with ADHD, likely indicating that ADHD does not follow the traditional model of an hereditary disease.
- Norepinephrine and dopamine play a critical role in modulating attention in ADHD patients. Norepinephrine seems to have more of an effect on executive function, whereas dopamine may be more important in maintaining attention. A variety of dopamine and serotonin receptors (e.g., dopamine 4 and 5, serotonin 1B) are associated with ADHD.
- Mutations in the PTCHD1 gene, which is active in the thalamus, are associated with attention deficit, hyperactivity, and learning disability. Lack of a functional copy of the gene in the thalamic reticular nucleus (TRN) results in attention deficit, hyperactivity, and disrupted sleep.
Dopamine Levels and Blood Circulation
- ADHD patients have reduced blood circulation and a significantly higher concentration of dopamine transporters in the striatum, a part of the brain that plays a role in executive function.
- It is likely not the dopamine transporter levels that indicate the presence of ADHD, but the brain's ability to produce dopamine itself. ADHD patients show lower levels of dopamine than healthy subjects across the board. Further, plasma homovanillic acid, an index of dopamine levels, is inversely related not only to childhood ADHD symptoms in adult psychiatric patients, but to "childhood learning problems" in healthy subjects as well.
- An early PET scan study found that global cerebral glucose metabolism was 8.1% lower in medication-naive adults who had been diagnosed as ADHD while children. The image on the left illustrates glucose metabolism in the brain of a "normal" adult while doing an assigned auditory attention task; the image on the right illustrates the areas of activity in the brain of an adult who had been diagnosed with ADHD as a child when given that same task. (These are not pictures of individual brains, which would contain substantial overlap, but rather images constructed to illustrate group-level differences.)
- Additionally, the regions with the greatest deficit of activity in the ADHD patients (relative to the controls) included the premotor cortex and the superior prefrontal cortex. ADHD symptoms are likely the result of impaired activity in specific regions of the brain, rather than a broad, global deficit.
- ADHD is associated with many of the same inherited genetic variations as clinical depression. Other conditions, such as learning disabilities, anxiety disorder, conduct disorder, depression, and substance abuse, are common in people with ADHD.
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