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Understandably, one of the first questions parents ask when they learn their child has an attention disorder is "Why? What went wrong?"

ADHD is NOT caused by poor parenting, family problems, poor teachers or schools, too much TV, food allergies, or excess sugar. One early theory was that attention disorders were caused by minor head injuries or damage to the brain, and thus for many years ADHD was called "minimal brain damage" or "minimal brain dysfunction." The vast majority of people with ADHD have no history of head injury or evidence of brain damage however. Another theory which is still heard in the media was that refined sugar and food additives make children hyperactive and inattentive. Scientists at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) concluded that this may apply to only about 5 percent of children with ADHD, mostly either very young children or children with food allergies.

Health professionals stress that since no one knows what causes ADHD, it doesn't help parents to look backward to search for possible reasons. There are too many possibilities to pin down the cause with certainty. It is far more important for the family to move forward in finding ways to get the right help. Scientists, however, do need to study causes in an effort to identify better ways to treat, and perhaps some day, prevent ADHD. They are finding more and more evidence that ADHD does not stem from home environment, but from biological causes. When you think about it, there is no clear relationship between home life and ADHD. Not all children from unstable or dysfunctional homes have ADHD. And not all children with ADHD come from dysfunctional families. Knowing this can remove a huge burden of guilt from parents who might blame themselves for their child's behavior.

ADHD is likely caused by biological factors which influence neurotransmitter activity in certain parts of the brain, and which have a strong genetic basis. Studies at NIMH using a PET (positron emission tomography) scanner to observe the brain at work have shown a link between a person's ability to pay continued attention and the level of activity in the brain. Specifically researchers measured the level of glucose used by the areas of the brain that inhibit impulses and control attention. In people with ADHD, the brain areas that control attention used less glucose, indicating that they were less active. It appears from this research that a lower level of activity in some parts of the brain may cause inattention and other ADHD symptoms.

There is some evidence that ADHD runs in families, which is suggestive of genetic factors. If one person in a family is diagnosed with ADHD there is a 25% to 35% probability that any other family member also has ADHD, compared to a 4% to 6% probability for someone in the general population.

At the bottom line, ADD is a neurobiological disorder. The most recent research shows that the symptoms of ADD are caused by a chemical imbalance in the brain. To understand how this disorder interferes with one's ability to focus, sustain attention, and with memory formation and retrieval, it is important to understand how the brain communicates information. Each brain cell has one axon, the part of the cell that sends messages to other cells; and many dendrites, the part that receives messages from other cells. There is a space between the axon and the next brain cell (they do not connect or touch). This space is called a neural gap.

Since these nerve endings don't actually touch, special chemicals called neurotransmitters carry (transmit) the message from the end of the axon to the dendrites that will receive it. With ADD there is a flaw in the way the brain manages the neurotransmitter production, storage or flow, causing imbalances. There is either not enough of them, or the levels are not regulated, swinging wildly from high to low.


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Date of Last Update: 07/27/12