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Brain Differences in ADHD Start Early in Life

We’ve known for a while that the brains of people with ADHD are physiologically different than the brains of people without ADHD. Many lines of research have converged on this fact, and it’s one reason not to put much stock in the intellectually lazy idea that ADHD is a “made-up” disorder.

PreschoolerBut now we have a new piece of the puzzle: it turns out that these brain differences show up early in life.

This finding comes from a study of 90 4- and 5-year-olds. The study found that children with ADHD had differences in several brain regions and that these differences correlated with symptom severity – in other words, that children whose brains were more different tended to have more severe ADHD symptoms. None of the children had been medicated for ADHD, so it’s clear that the brain differences were not a result of medication.

This study has gotten a lot of publicity, as far as psychology studies go anyway. It’s been covered in the New York Times and in Forbes. I’m not even the first person to write about it here at PsychCentral.

So of all the studies finding brain differences in children, why is this one a big deal? It’s a big deal because of how young the children in the study were.

Think about this for a minute: the study showed that, on average, the ADHD brain is already significantly different by four years of age.

Intuitively, the idea of diagnosing ADHD in children of this age seems potentially problematic. After all, preschoolers in general aren’t known for their self-control, focus and patience. This is where the “let kids be kids” argument against diagnosing ADHD early in life comes from.

But now consider the scientific evidence. This study shows that children with ADHD who are especially inattentive, hyperactive and impulsive relative to other children their age aren’t just “being kids.” They have concrete brain differences that correlate with these behaviors.

In other words, yes, preschoolers aren’t famed for their self-control, but there is a typical level of self-control children of this age have reached. Some children fall short of this level and, as a group, tend to have observable differences in how their brains are structured.

A point for comparison is the autism spectrum. Young children in general aren’t a model of sophisticated social skills, but there’s still a typical range of social skills that have developed by preschool, and when children aren’t in this range, it’s going to have a real effect on their lives. In the case of ADHD, the same is true for children outside the typical range of executive functioning skills.

This new research is good news for all of those who know firsthand the effects of having ADHD. It’s another pixel of scientific evidence in a picture that is increasingly clear: ADHD is real, people with ADHD have brains that work differently, and ADHD even in young children is not the result of bad parenting or “kids being kids.”

Image: Flickr/Scott Sherrill-Mix

Brain Differences in ADHD Start Early in Life

Neil Petersen

Neil Petersen writes regularly on education, learning disabilities and technology. He received his B.A. in 2014 and was diagnosed with ADHD at the beginning of his college studies. Neil also works for a music education non-profit and hopes to help create an education system that can better serve students with ADHD.

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APA Reference
Petersen, N. (2018). Brain Differences in ADHD Start Early in Life. Psych Central. Retrieved on July 4, 2020, from


Last updated: 28 Mar 2018
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