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How do ADHD medications affect the brain?

ADHD medications help screen out extraneous stimuli and distractions, and helps the ADHD patient focus better. Watch ADHD specialist Edward Hallowell, MD, discuss how when used properly, ADHD medications can help you achieve mental focus more easily.


Donna Hill Howes, RN
Family Medicine
Medications treat symptoms of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) by changing the way our neurotransmitters work in the brain. Neurotransmitters are special substances in our brains that allow brain cells to communicate with each other. The neurotransmitters that ADHD medications alter include norepinephrine and dopamine. As a result, these medications modify the areas of the brain that control our attention span and activity levels.

However, each medication affects people in different ways. Doctors are not able to predict exactly how each person will respond to a specific ADHD medication. Sometimes a doctor will need to switch a person's medication or adjust the dose to find the most effective way to treat one's ADHD symptoms.
Dr. Michael Roizen, MD
Internal Medicine

Your brain sort of works like phone calls do. If your brain wants to tell you to sit still or pay attention, it would signal the right brain cell (to dial the right number).

In the case of ADHD, experts believe you have a fat finger and hit two numbers instead of one. That can get a wrong number or a busy signal that results in no connection or what we call inappropriate inattention.

Medications for ADHD work by increasing the amount of dopamine or norepinephrine that is available, or by increasing the number of their receptors available, acting as if to make one number easier to hit and to make an appropriate connection.

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Important: This content reflects information from various individuals and organizations and may offer alternative or opposing points of view. It should not be used for medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. As always, you should consult with your healthcare provider about your specific health needs.