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The Link Between ADHD And Drug Abuse

Dr. Anna Pickering

Medically reviewed by

Dr. Anna Pickering

April 2, 2019

Individuals with ADHD are nearly twice as likely to engage in drug-related activities, including binge drinking or use of illicit substances, as those without the disorder. Researchers have correlated dysfunction in parts of the brain with higher rates of impulsivity and lower attention span. Both genetics and damage to these regions of the brain can be factors for an increased risk of drug addiction.

Impulsivity And Drug Abuse

There are certain factors common among drug and alcohol addiction and ADHD. Impulsive or compulsive behaviors are connected to both, as well as dopamine neurotransmission dysfunction. Specific parts of the frontal cortex of the brain are responsible for impulsivity. When this region of the brain is dysfunctional, it can lead to risky behaviors, lack of forethought about consequences associated with actions, and decreased attention span. Altered or reduced dopamine levels also contribute to behaviors linked with both addiction and ADHD.

Experiments involving mice indicate those with damage to the orbitofrontal cortex results in these animals choosing immediate rewards over larger rewards that required more effort to obtain. Similarly, someone with higher incidence of impulsivity will seek out immediate gratification, over goal-oriented delayed rewards, a hallmark of an addictive personality.

Substances like heroin, cocaine, alcohol, coffee, and tobacco each elevate dopamine levels, resulting in a fairly immediate “reward.” The impulsivity associated with ADHD can make it harder for someone to stop using, seeking out the immediate gratification of the drug, over the long-term reward of recovery. Early identification of symptoms associated with ADHD along with treatment for the disorder can have a huge impact on reducing relapse rates among this population.

ADHD In Youth Populations And Addiction Risk

Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder symptoms typically begin to appear in children around the age of seven years. As many as 10 percent of youth populations have ADHD, making it one of the most common mental disorders among this age group. Youth populations with untreated ADHD are far more likely to begin abusing substances like alcohol or marijuana than those who do not have the disorder.

They also tend to begin using substances like drugs and alcohol at earlier ages than those without ADHD. The frontal lobe isn’t fully developed in youth populations, making them more likely to exhibit ADHD symptoms as well as impulsivity. This can result in making them more vulnerable to abusing drugs and alcohol into adulthood.

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Drug Addiction And Undiagnosed ADHD In Adult Populations

Often adults with ADHD are not even aware they have it; adjusting their lifestyle around symptoms of the disorder. In some cases, they self-medicate to mediate symptoms of their ADHD. Controlling the symptoms of ADHD, which include impulsivity, restlessness, and trouble concentrating, has shown promise in reducing relapse rates among those suffering from a co-occurring drug addiction.

More than half of children with ADHD will continue to show symptoms of the disorder as adults.

Symptoms of ADHD in Adults include:

  • Trouble concentrating
  • Restlessness
  • Impulsivity
  • Poor follow-through
  • Mood changes
  • Easily frustrated
  • Problems maintaining relationships
  • Higher divorce rate
  • Poor coping mechanism
  • Lack of organization
  • Frequent trouble at work or frequent dismissals
  • Suffer more accidents
  • Lower level of education

These symptoms of ADHD are also contributing factors for drug and alcohol addiction, making treatment of the co-occurring disorders and essential strategy in helping an individual achieve a long-term recovery.

Treatment Of Co-Occurring ADHD And Addiction

No one knows the exact cause of ADHD, but studies indicate a link to a dysfunction in dopamine neurotransmission in the brain. While some physicians have been reluctant to treat ADHD in drug-addicted individuals with stimulant medications, these stimulant medications, which improve dopamine levels show promise in treating the symptoms of ADHD.

Often, apart from genetic factors, individuals develop a substance use disorder due to behaviors relating to impulsivity and compulsivity connected to co-occurring disorders like ADHD. Correcting the origin of those behaviors is one way to increase the effectiveness of treatment of the co-occurring drug or alcohol addiction.

Issues arise however, in how to accurately diagnose these disorders, when the symptoms of one so significantly mimic the other. Adults with ADHD often have suffered with the disorder since early childhood and are prone to early drug exposure as a result. Since a period of abstinence from the abused substance or substances may not be possible in these cases, a careful assessment evaluating drug-triggers and other factors relating to cravings and the addiction can aid in determining whether ADHD is a factor in the drug or alcohol addiction.

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