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ADHD: Your Brain On Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (VIDEO)

First Posted: 12/30/11 09:04 AM ET Updated: 12/30/11 05:59 PM ET

Hey everybody, Cara Santa Maria here. Nearly 10% of kids in this country have been diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. Some estimates say it's closer to 16%, and the numbers appear to be rising.

But does this mean that more and more kids are showing symptoms of ADHD? Or have they always had the disorder, but now more and more kids are being appropriately diagnosed? Unfortunately, the answer seems to be: who knows?

What we do know is that ADHD is a developmental disorder characterized by inattention, hyperactivity, and impulsiveness to the extent that it causes significantly impaired functioning at school and home. The cause of ADHD is still up for debate. A handful of researchers think it shouldn’t even qualify as a disorder.

However, evidence indicates that the brains of children with ADHD are different than those of kids who’ve never been diagnosed. In particular, the left prefrontal cortex of the brain is smaller and quieter in children with ADHD, which may explain why focused attention is such a task for them. Also, the motor cortex appears to develop more quickly, which is probably linked to their hyperactivity.

ADHD medications work by targeting cells in the prefrontal cortex and boosting levels of two neurotransmitters there: norepinephrine (the brain's adrenaline) and dopamine. Kids with ADHD are thought to have low levels of these chemicals, and stimulant medications work to bring them up to normal. Nearly 3 million children take drugs like Ritalin (a methylphenidate drug) or Adderall (an amphetamine). These drugs improve focus, concentration, and attention, but their use is highly controversial. There’s evidence linking them to stunted growth, reduction in appetite, and children taking them are more often depressed than those who don't. What’s more, the long-term effects of ADHD meds on a child's heart and brain are unknown.

On another note, a study published last month in the Journal of Pharmacy Practice showed that, surprise surprise, 40% of college students who were prescribed stimulant medication for ADHD abused it. And this is self-report data! Who knows how much higher the number may actually be, given the tendency for survey subjects to lie about socially irresponsible behaviors. One study found that over the course of 8 years, calls to a poison control center about teenage abuse of ADHD medication rose 76%.

And, contrary to what clinicians used to think, ADHD doesn’t just effect kids. Nearly 4% of the adult population in the US currently carry an ADHD diagnosis, and around 8% have been diagnosed at some point in their lives. Studies show that adults with ADHD deal with higher than average rates of divorce, substance abuse, unemployment, and disability. But there is hope on the horizon. Along with drug treatment, cognitive behavioral therapies seem to work. And although alternative treatments like neurofeedback have been met with skepticism, new data appears to support their efficacy.

What do you think? Join the conversation by reaching out to me on Twitter, Facebook, or commenting right here on my HuffPost column. Come on, Talk Nerdy to Me!

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