ADHD as a Risk Factor for Addiction

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Many factors can make an individual more vulnerable to addiction, including mental health disorders, and genetics. It is true that there are a host of risk factors that contribute to addiction, but scientists have shown that there is a very real link between ADHD and addiction. With both ADHD and addiction being chronic conditions that affect the brain, there is a definitive link between the two.

What is ADHD?

ADHD is a neurodevelopmental disorder that impacts impulsivity, attention, and activity levels. It’s a chronic condition that results in executive dysfunction disrupting a person’s ability to regulate thoughts, feelings, and actions.


Mental healthcare professionals have categorised it into four types:

  • Predominantly inattentive
  • Predominantly hyperactive-impulsive
  • Combined presentation
  • Unspecified presentation

Sometimes those who struggle with ADHD fall into addiction because it is a proven risk factor. There is overlapping neurobiology of addiction and ADHD which makes them more vulnerable to addiction.

For those who are struggling with both addiction and ADHD, addiction & mental health treatment is available to help chart a healthy path forward.

Neurobiology of Addiction.

Addiction has a lot to do with the dopamine mesolimbic and mesocortical circuits in the brain. These two circuits are so closely related in feedback/feedforward relationships that what happens in one circuit will affect the function of the other circuit. The three repeating cycles of substance abuse and alcoholism are intoxication, negative affect, and anticipation. Each phase of the cycle is associated with altering the functioning of mesolimbic and mesocortical circuits. Repeating this cycle results in a progressive spiral of dysfunction that disrupts the processing of interoception, decision-making, and cognitive control. When these two circuits are down-regulated at the same time cravings are increased and the ability to control the cravings is lessened.

Characteristics of ADHD.

One of the characteristics of ADHD is impulsivity/lack of behaviour control. Self-regulation is extremely difficult for those with ADHD, and those who suffer from addiction tend to experience difficulties with self-regulation as well. When a person with ADHD engages in substance use, they are more likely to fall into addiction due to the impulsivity and inability to effectively manage their emotions and impulses. Neural models of ADHD impulsivity are quite similar to those that impair a person’s sensitivity to reward. The inability to withstand boredom can motivate someone with ADHD to impulsively seek out rewards that will activate neurons in the mesolimbic system. Since substances provide temporary rewards, more frequent rewards are necessary to achieve sensations. The deficits in executive functioning that accompanies ADHD makes addiction easier for those with ADHD to fall into.

The shared neurobiological deficits in the mesolimbic and mesocortical systems are the link between ADHD and addiction. Many individuals who have been diagnosed with ADHD should be aware of this connection and be extremely cautious when encountering alcohol and other substances. Although many people are diagnosed as children and adolescents, the condition can also be diagnosed in adults. Regardless of age, those with ADHD should remain vigilant. And those with addiction may want to consider getting screened for ADHD. It could be the missing link needed to assist with long-term recovery.

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