Kids with ADHD have Unusual Brain Wiring, New Study Finds

Image of a brain

Despite decades of false claims and persistent parent-shaming, “bad parenting” does not cause ADHD. A recent study from the NIH has found more evidence that ADHD symptoms are related to structural differences in the ADHD brain. Children with ADHD have differences on MRI in the number of neural connections in their brains.

The ShouldStorm has always blamed parents

Society always blames parents for anything different about their kids, a reality I call the ShouldStorm. Back in the day, so-called experts blamed “refrigerator mothers” for creating autism in their children. The false story went that cold and unfeeling mothering led to abnormalities in autistic children. That sounds like the classic claim of the parenting ShouldStorm that if we make one mistake as parents we will mess up our kids for life.

Guess what? Kids with Autism have sensory sensitivities. This means taht they can become easily overwhelmed by hugs, cuddles, or too much talking and too much emotion. So those moms, who had no access to the many therapies we have now to help young children with autism learn social and sensory skills, had to do the best they could. Their “refrigerator” style was really a loving response to their kids. By becoming more flat and less demonstrative in their interactions with their child, they were avoiding overstimulating them.

ADHD brains have more neural connections

In an article I wrote for Forbes, I shared new research from the NIH showing that children with ADHD brain have atypical neural connectivity between key areas of their brains. Here’s a summary of that article:

Functional MRI of ADHD brains

Researchers have discovered unusual connections in the brains of children with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), as per a report published in the American Journal of Psychiatry. This study is important because it was so large. Previous studies looking at this have included roughly 100 patients.

This paper by researchers at the NIH’s National Institute of Mental Health and National Human Genome Research Institute, analyzed functional brain images from over 8,000 youth with a mean age of around 10.5 years old. They compared the images from 1,696 kids with ADHD diagnoses with those from 6,737 unaffected control subjects.

Atypical wiring in the ADHD brain

These Functional brain images atypical wiring between the brain’s frontal cortex and deeper centers involved in information processing in kids with ADHD. Specifically, researchers found increased connectivity between deep brain structures (caudate, putamen, nucleus accumbens) associated with learning, movement, and reward, and the frontal cortex where attention and undesirable behaviors are regulated.

Importance of optimal connectivity in the brain

While many might assume that more neural connections are better, the brain relies on the right amount of connection for optimal function. More connectivity is not better, but actually leaves room for difficulty with regulation within the brain. In fact, extra neural connection is a feature of a number of brain disorders, including autism.

Effect on attention difficulty

The study also found that children with higher scores for attention difficulty exhibited increased connectivity in these areas compared to those with lower attentional difficulty. In other words, the greater the degree of extra wiring in the brain of a kid with ADHD, the harder a time that child had with regulating attention. The same correlation was found between scores for hyperactivity and increased neural connection in the ADHD brain.

Understanding ADHD

The study enhances understanding of ADHD by uncovering these neural connectivity differences. The more we understand what’s going on in the ADHD brain, in our kids’ brains, the more we can support them with compassion. Continued investigations like this one into the functioning of the ADHD brain could lead to more effective treatments.

Biological Evidence Against Parental Blame

These findings provide biological evidence that challenges persistent myths blaming parents for ADHD. Once again, it’s not the parents’ fault. Rather, parents are doing the best they can to raise the kids they have.

The ADHD brain in kids has atypical wiring; it is not caused by “bad parenting.”

How do ADHD brains develop extra neural connections?

Pruning in Developing Brains

Pruning is a key process in developing brains that facilitates the development of more mature processes. As the brain develops, it prunes, or disposes of unneeded connections between neurons at the synapses. By eliminating unnecessary connectivity, the brain becomes more efficient in its functioning. But if the brain does not prune enough, it is left with areas of inefficiency that can get in the way of a child’s ability to self-regulate.

Increased Connectivity in Young ADHD Brain

The discovery of increased connectivity between key regions in the young ADHD brain suggests insufficient synaptic pruning in those pathways. Decreased pruning leading to increased connectivity between different brain areas has also been observed in autism, another neurodevelopmental disorder.

Implications for Brain Functioning

Insufficient pruning may disrupt the normal development of brain networks and contribute to the manifestation of neurodevelopmental disorders like ADHD and autism.

Atypical brain wiring and ADHD behavior

Kids with ADHD brains have extra neural connectivity between deep brain areas that connect movement and reward with higher brain areas that regulate whether “undesirable” behaviors. This means they often get more rewarding good feelings from doing things that adults around them discourage. So for kids with ADHD it just feels better when they wiggle or jump than when they sit still.

Likewise, kids with ADHD brains also have extra wiring between the deep brain areas that connect learning and reward with higher brain areas that regulate attention. Once again, they get more rewards from their brain when they daydream than when they have to pay attention to learning boring subjects or doing boring tasks.

It’s not about willpower

When we understand that this is just how the brain works in ADHD, we can be more compassionate to kids with ADHD and their parents. With regulation disrupted in the brain, a key feature of ADHD is that kids simply cannot always do what they can do sometimes.

So when teachers or adults judge a child with an ADHD brain negativiely because “they can do it sometimes so they should be able to do it all the time,” they are simply wrong.

Strategies and support, not punishment

This study provides more biological evidence that what kids with ADHD brains need is not punishment, but support. The specific types of support are beyond the scope of this article, and may include working with and Occupational therapist or an executive function coach. Parents can find additional resources from

My own SIGH, SEE, START method was designed with parents who either have ADHD themselves or are raising kids with ADHD very much in mind. SIGH, SEE, START: How To Be the Parent Your Child Needs in a World That Won’t Stop Pushing offers a science-based method in three simple steps. It’s available here on amazon or wherever books are sold.

But the one thing that definitely does not help parents or kids with ADHD is blaming them.

Spread the love

Author: Alison Escalante MD

Alison Escalante MD is a Pediatrician, TEDx Speaker, Writer and Mother on a mission to help parents caught in the culture of criticism.

Verified by ExactMetrics