Thank you! Your submission has been received!
Oops! Something went wrong while submitting the form.
Subscribe to the Magazine for free
Subscribe for free to keep reading! If you are already subscribed, enter your email address to log back in.
Thanks for subscribing!
Oops! Something went wrong while submitting the form.
Are you a healthcare practitioner?
Thanks for subscribing!
Oops! Something went wrong while submitting the form.

What is Dopamine's Role in ADHD?

Medically reviewed by 
What is Dopamine's Role in ADHD?

Living with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) can be challenging. It affects nearly 10% of children and just over 4% of adults in many aspects of daily life. From struggling to pay attention in school or work to feeling restless and impulsive, ADHD can make everyday tasks feel overwhelming and difficult. 

Researchers are investigating the causes and risk factors associated with ADHD to develop improved strategies for managing and preventing the disorder. ADHD appears to result from the interaction between genetics, environment, nutrition, and neurological function. 

This article aims to explore one important piece of the puzzle: dopamine, a chemical messenger in the brain. By understanding dopamine's role in ADHD development, we hope to find better ways to support those living with this condition.


Overview of ADHD

ADHD, or attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, is a neurodevelopmental condition characterized by persistent patterns of inattention, hyperactivity, and impulsivity that interfere with daily functioning. 

Inattention manifests as difficulty sustaining attention, organizing tasks, and following instructions. 

Hyperactivity involves excessive fidgeting, restlessness, and difficulty staying seated in situations where it's expected. 

Impulsivity refers to acting without forethought, interrupting others, and engaging in risky behaviors.

Diagnosing ADHD involves observing behaviors associated with ADHD across various settings, such as at home, school, and work, and considering their duration and severity. 

The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) outlines specific criteria for diagnosing ADHD: 

  • Symptoms have been present since before age 12
  • Symptoms have persisted for at least six months 
  • At least six symptoms are present in children younger than 17, and at least five symptoms are present in patients 17 years and older.
  • Symptoms must occur in two or more settings and cause impairment in social, academic, or occupational functioning.

The impact of ADHD on individuals' daily lives can be profound. In children, it may lead to academic underachievement, social difficulties, and behavioral challenges in school settings. Many children with ADHD also have conduct problems, learning disorders, anxiety, and depression. (40

Adults with ADHD often struggle with maintaining employment, managing relationships, and organizing tasks effectively. Additionally, individuals with ADHD may experience comorbid conditions such as anxiety, depression, and substance abuse.

What is Dopamine?

Dopamine is a neurotransmitter – a chemical messenger in the brain – that regulates various cognitive, emotional, and behavioral processes. It is often referred to as the brain's "feel-good" neurotransmitter due to its involvement in feelings of pleasure, reward, and motivation.

One of dopamine's primary functions is its role in the brain's reward system. When we engage in rewarding activities, dopamine is released in the brain, creating feelings of pleasure. This reinforcement mechanism is essential for learning and motivation. (17

Dopamine regulates mood and emotional responses. Imbalances in dopamine levels have been implicated in mood disorders such as depression and bipolar disorder. (17

Moreover, dopamine is critical for attention processes, particularly in sustaining focus and concentration. Optimal dopamine functioning is necessary for maintaining attention over time and filtering out irrelevant information, contributing to our ability to stay focused on tasks. (37

Dopamine pathways in the brain are intricately involved in executive function – the mental skills that help us manage time, pay attention, plan and organize, and remember details. These pathways facilitate communication between different brain regions involved in decision-making, problem-solving, and impulse control, allowing us to navigate complex tasks and regulate our behavior effectively. (26

Dopamine's Link to ADHD

Scientists believe that a dysfunctional dopamine system is implicated in various cognitive, emotional, and behavioral deficits observed in individuals with ADHD. Compromise to the body's normal reward system can make an individual more likely to make impulsive decisions.

The dysregulation of dopamine levels and signaling pathways in ADHD contributes to various symptoms characteristic of the disorder (inattention, impulsivity, and hyperactivity). Reduced dopamine availability in key brain regions implicated in executive function, such as the prefrontal cortex, may impair attentional control and cognitive flexibility, leading to difficulties sustaining focus and inhibiting impulsive behaviors. Additionally, abnormalities in dopamine-mediated reward processing and motivation may contribute to deficits in reward sensitivity and reinforcement learning observed in individuals with ADHD. (48

One hypothesis surrounding dopamine dysregulation in ADHD involves alterations in dopamine transporter density (DTD). Dopamine transporters help move dopamine back into neurons, controlling the amount of dopamine in the brain. A higher DTD correlates to a lower concentration of dopamine in the brain. (18

Studies utilizing neuroimaging techniques such as positron emission tomography (PET) have shown inconsistent differences in DTD between individuals with and without ADHD. Studies have revealed higher, lower, and no significant differences in DTD in individuals with ADHD. These discrepancies may be related to variations in study methodologies, population characteristics, and sample sizes. More research is needed to definitively understand how variations in dopamine transporters may be related to dopamine imbalance and ADHD.

Alterations in dopamine receptor availability have also been implicated in ADHD pathophysiology. Dopamine receptors are proteins located on the surface of neurons that bind to dopamine molecules, initiating cellular responses. There is growing evidence to suggest that specific patterns of dopamine receptor subtypes and availability are associated with ADHD symptoms. (20, 52

Genetic Factors and Dopamine in ADHD

Numerous studies have identified variations (polymorphisms) in genes associated with dopamine neurotransmission that may predispose individuals to ADHD.

One gene of interest is the dopamine transporter gene (DAT1), which encodes the dopamine transporter protein responsible for reuptaking dopamine from the synaptic cleft. Variations in the DAT1 gene have been linked to differences in dopamine transporter density and function. Certain alleles of the DAT1 gene have been associated with an increased risk of ADHD, potentially leading to alterations in dopamine reuptake and neurotransmission. (27, 45

Genetic variations in dopamine receptor genes, particularly the D4 receptor subtype (DRD4) and the D2 receptor subtype (DRD2), have been studied in relation to ADHD. Polymorphisms in these genes have been associated with differences in dopamine receptor availability and function, affecting aspects of reward processing, impulse control, and attention regulation. Specific variants of these genes have been linked to an increased risk of ADHD and may contribute to alterations in dopamine-mediated behaviors observed in individuals with the disorder. (39, 45

Dopamine and ADHD Medications

Common medications used to treat ADHD primarily target dopamine neurotransmission, among other neurotransmitter systems, to alleviate ADHD symptoms and improve cognitive functioning.

Stimulant medications, such as methylphenidate (e.g., Ritalin) and amphetamines (e.g., Adderall), work by increasing the availability of dopamine and norepinephrine in the brain. They do so by stimulating the release of dopamine and norepinephrine from neurons and blocking their reuptake. This results in higher concentrations of dopamine and norepinephrine in key brain regions implicated in ADHD, such as the prefrontal cortex and striatum. The correct stimulant medication and dosage can reduce symptoms in 70% of adults and 80% of children with ADHD. (23

Non-stimulant medications used to treat ADHD, such as atomoxetine (Strattera) and guanfacine (Intuniv), modulate norepinephrine levels in the brain (34).

Behavioral and Lifestyle Factors Affecting Dopamine

Non-pharmacological approaches to managing ADHD encompass various lifestyle factors such as diet, exercise, and sleep, all of which can impact dopamine levels and contribute to symptom alleviation.


Low dopamine levels can be caused by an insufficient dietary intake of protein and micronutrients required by the body to make it. The amino acids (protein building blocks) tyrosine, phenylalanine, and theanine can support the endogenous synthesis of dopamine. Vitamin D, magnesium, and omega-3 fatty acids also help regulate dopamine levels. (16


Physical activity has been shown to increase dopamine release and receptor availability in the brain. Other benefits of regular exercise include enhanced neuroplasticity and blood flow to key brain regions, leading to improved attention, mood, and executive function. 


Chronic sleep deprivation has been linked to alterations in dopamine signaling, leading to impairments in attention, memory, and emotional regulation. When individuals are forced to stay awake at night, dopamine receptors in the brain decrease. (16)  

Healthy sleep habits, such as maintaining a consistent sleep schedule, creating a conducive sleep environment, and practicing relaxation techniques before bedtime, can support dopamine regulation and improve ADHD symptoms.

Emerging Research on Dopamine and ADHD

Recent and ongoing research into dopamine's role in ADHD has utilized advanced imaging techniques, identified potential new medication targets, and explored personalized medicine approaches based on dopamine-related markers.

Advanced Imaging Studies

Neuroimaging studies using techniques such as functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) and positron emission tomography (PET) have provided insights into the neurobiological underpinnings of ADHD, particularly regarding dopamine neurotransmission.

Recent research has focused on mapping dopamine pathways and receptor densities in individuals with ADHD to better understand how dopamine dysregulation contributes to ADHD symptomatology. (51

Advanced imaging studies have also investigated structural and functional connectivity abnormalities in brain networks implicated in ADHD, shedding light on the complex neural mechanisms underlying the disorder. (51

Potential New Medication Targets

Emerging research has identified potential new medication targets for ADHD to modulate dopamine neurotransmission more selectively and effectively. 

For instance, studies have explored novel pharmacological agents that target specific subtypes of dopamine receptors or transporters, aiming to optimize dopamine signaling while minimizing side effects associated with traditional stimulant medications. (36)

Additionally, research has focused on developing non-stimulant medications that act on alternative neurotransmitter systems, such as glutamate or serotonin, to augment dopamine function in ADHD. (36)

Personalized Medicine Approaches

The field of personalized medicine in ADHD has gained traction, with researchers investigating how variations in genetics, neurobiology, and psychological factors may influence treatment response and medication efficacy. By considering these risk factors in treatment algorithms, personalized medicine approaches aim to better tailor interventions to the individual versus relying on a one-size-fits-all approach. (13

Considerations and Challenges in Treatment

While pharmacological treatments targeting dopamine neurotransmission, such as stimulants and non-stimulants, are commonly prescribed and can be effective for many individuals, they also come with potential side effects and limitations. Stimulant medications can lead to side effects such as insomnia, appetite suppression, and increased heart rate and blood pressure. Non-stimulant medications may cause side effects such as gastrointestinal disturbances or mood changes. These side effects can vary in severity among individuals and may necessitate dosage adjustments or medication changes to achieve optimal symptom control without intolerable side effects. (4

One of the most significant challenges in ADHD treatment is patient compliance. According to a randomized controlled trial, nearly half of the participating children demonstrated some degree of medication non-adherence. A systematic review examining adherence, persistence, and discontinuation of drug therapy in patients with ADHD reported the most common reasons for discontinuing medications were side effects and inadequate symptom control.

Given the complexities of treating ADHD, a comprehensive treatment approach that goes beyond medication is often necessary. 

  • Psychotherapy can help individuals develop coping strategies, improve organizational skills, and address co-occurring conditions such as anxiety or depression. Systematic reviews have found that psychotherapy, particularly cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), effectively reduces ADHD symptoms in children and adults
  • Lifestyle modifications and natural supplementation can support overall well-being and complement medication-based interventions. For example, optimizing nutrition can reduce the need for ADHD medications by 37%.


Key Takeaways

As researchers delve deeper into the intricate origins of ADHD, it's evident that dopamine serves as a crucial player in both its development and management. Dopamine impacts a wide array of cognitive, emotional, and behavioral functions, and disruptions in this neurotransmitter pathway lie at the heart of ADHD symptoms. Ongoing research endeavors are dedicated to untangling the intricacies of dopamine's role in ADHD and developing more effective and personalized interventions. 

For healthcare providers and those living with ADHD alike, staying informed about the latest advancements in research and treatment is essential. By fostering collaboration and knowledge-sharing, we can strive towards a better understanding and more effective management of this complex neurodevelopmental disorder, bringing hope and support to those affected.

The information provided is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice. Always consult with your doctor or other qualified healthcare provider before taking any dietary supplement or making any changes to your diet or exercise routine.
Learn More
No items found.

Lab Tests in This Article

No items found.


  1. AAFP National Research Network. DSM-5 Diagnostic Criteria for ADHD.
  2. ADDA Editorial Team. (2023, July 24). Impact of ADHD at Work. Attention Deficit Disorder Association.
  3. ADHD and Complementary Health Approaches. (2023, July). NCCIH.
  4. ADHD Medication. (2022, October 6). Cleveland Clinic.
  5. Advokat, C., & Scheithauer, M. (2013). Attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) stimulant medications as cognitive enhancers. Frontiers in Neuroscience, 7(82).
  6. Agarwal, R., Goldenberg, M., Perry, R., et al. (2012). The Quality of Life of Adults with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder. Innovations in Clinical Neuroscience, 9(5-6), 10–21.
  7. Arnsten, A. F. T. (2009). The Emerging Neurobiology of Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder: The Key Role of the Prefrontal Association Cortex. The Journal of Pediatrics, 154(5), I-S43.
  8. Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), Inattentive Type in Adults. (2019). Cleveland Clinic.
  9. Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). (2014). National Institute of Mental Health.
  10. Barrell, A. (2021, March 24). What to expect from ADHD in relationships. Medical News Today.
  11. Bertagna, B. (2024, February 14). Nutrients for Focus and ADHD: Exploring the Link Between Nutrition and Symptoms. Rupa Health.
  12. Bhatia, A., & Saadabadi, A. (2020). Biochemistry, Dopamine Receptors. PubMed; StatPearls Publishing.
  13. Buitelaar, J., Bölte, S., Brandeis, D., et al. (2022). Toward Precision Medicine in ADHD. Frontiers in Behavioral Neuroscience, 16.
  14. Data and Statistics About ADHD. (2022, August 9). Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
  15. Diorio, B. (2022, August 11). Anxiety, GI Discomfort, Irritability, And Poor Memory Are All Signs Of These Neurotransmitter Imbalances. Rupa Health.
  16. Diorio, B. (2022, September 23). How to Regulate Your Dopamine Levels Naturally. Rupa Health.
  17. Dopamine. (2022, March 23). Cleveland Clinic.
  18. Dopamine Transporter. ScienceDirect.
  19. Dougherty, D. D., Bonab, A. A., Spencer, T. J., et al. (1999). Dopamine transporter density in patients with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. The Lancet, 354(9196), 2132–2133.
  20. Dum, R., Ghahramani, A., Baweja, R., et al. (2022). Dopamine Receptor Expression and the Pathogenesis of Attention-Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder: a Scoping Review of the Literature. Current Developmental Disorders Reports, 9(4), 127–136.
  21. Executive Functions. (2019). UCSF Memory and Aging Center.
  22. Exercise boosts blood flow to the brain, study finds. (2021, March 23). UT Southwestern Medical Center.
  23. Farzam, K., Faizy, R. M., & Saadabadi, A. (2020). Stimulants. PubMed; StatPearls Publishing.
  24. Foley, T. E., & Fleshner, M. (2008). Neuroplasticity of Dopamine Circuits After Exercise: Implications for Central Fatigue. NeuroMolecular Medicine, 10(2), 67–80.
  25. Fullen, T., Jones, S. L., Emerson, L. M., et al. (2020). Psychological Treatments in Adult ADHD: A Systematic Review. Journal of Psychopathology and Behavioral Assessment, 42(3).
  26. Hosenbocus, S., & Chahal, R. (2012). A review of executive function deficits and pharmacological management in children and adolescents. Journal of the Canadian Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry = Journal de l’Academie Canadienne de Psychiatrie de l’Enfant et de L’adolescent, 21(3), 223–229.
  27. Jeong, S. H., Choi, K.-S., Lee, K. Y., et al. (2015). Association between the dopamine transporter gene (DAT1) and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder-related traits in healthy adults. Psychiatric Genetics, 25(3), 119–126.
  28. Kandola, A. (2023, February 17). What to know about psychotherapy for ADHD. Medical News Today.
  29. Kresge, K. (2022, February 11). 6 Common Nutrient Deficiencies Linked to ADHD. Rupa Health.
  30. Kresge, K. (2022, April 22). A Functional Medicine Approach To Bipolar Disorder. Rupa Health.
  31. Kresge, K. (2023, February 21). An Integrative Medicine Approach to Depression. Rupa Health.
  32. Kresge, K. (2023, March 2). An Integrative Medicine Approach to ADHD. Rupa Health.
  33. Marques, A., Marconcin, P., Werneck, A. O., et al. (2021). Bidirectional Association between Physical Activity and Dopamine across Adulthood—A Systematic Review. Brain Sciences, 11(7), 829.
  34. Miller, C. (2023, January 26). What Are Nonstimulant Medications for ADHD? Child Mind Institute.
  35. Miller, D. J., Derefinko, K. J., Lynam, D. R., et al. (2009). Impulsivity and Attention Deficit-Hyperactivity Disorder: Subtype Classification Using the UPPS Impulsive Behavior Scale. Journal of Psychopathology and Behavioral Assessment, 32(3), 323–332.
  36. Nazarova, V. A., Sokolov, A. V., Chubarev, V. N., et al. (2022). Treatment of ADHD: Drugs, psychological therapies, devices, complementary and alternative methods as well as the trends in clinical trials. Frontiers in Pharmacology, 13(13).
  37. Nieoullon, A. (2002). Dopamine and the regulation of cognition and attention. Progress in Neurobiology, 67(1), 53–83.
  38. Oldehinkel, M., Beckmann, C. F., Pruim, R. H. R., et al. (2016). Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder symptoms coincide with altered striatal connectivity. Biological Psychiatry: Cognitive Neuroscience and Neuroimaging, 1(4), 353–363.
  39. Blum, K., Lih-Chuan Chen, A., Braverman, E. R., et al. (2008). Attention-deficit-hyperactivity Disorder and Reward Deficiency Syndrome. Neuropsychiatric Disease and Treatment, 4(5), 893–918.
  40. Other Concerns and Conditions with ADHD. (2019, August 27). Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
  41. Pappadopulos, E., Jensen, P. S., Chait, A. R., et al. (2009). Medication Adherence in the MTA: Saliva Methylphenidate Samples Versus Parent Report and Mediating Effect of Concomitant Behavioral Treatment. Journal of the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry, 48(5), 501–510.
  42. Pereira-Sanchez, V., & Castellanos, F. X. (2020). Neuroimaging in attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder. Current Opinion in Psychiatry, Publish Ahead of Print.
  43. Sikirica, V., Lu, M., Greven, P., et al. (2014). Adherence, persistence, and medication discontinuation in patients with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder – a systematic literature review. Neuropsychiatric Disease and Treatment, 10, 1543–1569.
  44. Tips for Better Sleep. (2022, September 13). Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
  45. Turic, D., Swanson, J., & Sonuga-Barke, E. (2010). DRD4 and DAT1 in ADHD: Functional neurobiology to pharmacogenetics. Pharmacogenomics and Personalized Medicine, 3, 61–78.
  46. Vacher, C., Goujon, A., Romo, L., et al. (2020). Efficacy of psychosocial interventions for children with ADHD and emotion dysregulation: a systematic review. Psychiatry Research, 291, 113151.
  47. van Dyck, C. H., Quinlan, D. M., Cretella, L. M., et al. (2002). Unaltered dopamine transporter availability in adult attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. The American Journal of Psychiatry, 159(2), 309–312.
  48. Villines, Z. (2023, June 28). How to increase dopamine with ADHD. Medical News Today.
  49. Volkow, N. D., Tomasi, D., Wang, G.-J., et al. (2012). Evidence That Sleep Deprivation Downregulates Dopamine D2R in Ventral Striatum in the Human Brain. Journal of Neuroscience, 32(19), 6711–6717.
  50. Volkow, N. D., Wang, G.-J., Kollins, S. H., et al. (2009). Evaluating Dopamine Reward Pathway in ADHD. JAMA, 302(10), 1084.
  51. Weyandt, L., Swentosky, A., & Gudmundsdottir, B. G. (2013). Neuroimaging and ADHD: fMRI, PET, DTI Findings, and Methodological Limitations. Developmental Neuropsychology, 38(4), 211–225.
  52. Wu, J., Xiao, H., Sun, H., et al. (2012). Role of Dopamine Receptors in ADHD: A Systematic Meta-analysis. Molecular Neurobiology, 45(3), 605–620.
  53. Zimmer, L. (2009). Positron emission tomography neuroimaging for a better understanding of the biology of ADHD. Neuropharmacology, 57(7-8), 601–607.
Subscribe to the Magazine for free. to keep reading!
Subscribe for free to keep reading, If you are already subscribed, enter your email address to log back in.
Thanks for subscribing!
Oops! Something went wrong while submitting the form.
Are you a healthcare practitioner?
Thanks for subscribing!
Oops! Something went wrong while submitting the form.