The ADHD Brain, New Research Part 2: Stressors that may Cause Chemical & Physical Changes

In a recent post we noted the fact that new brain research is finding physical and chemical changes that occur in the brain in response to certain stressors on the pregnant mother and or the child.   The hormones we reviewed occur in response to stress, but what we now know is that these hormones have an impact not just on the chemistry of the brain but on the development of pathways in the brain. Consequently, constant stress or intermittent stress can change your brain’s ability to function. young brain cells.

We know that other factors play in to brain development and function including genetics and environment which we will continue to discuss in future posts; for this work we are focusing primarily on the response to stress on the brain.

So let’s look at certain parts of the brain and the critical times of development

 First 3 yearsAges 3-5 Hippocampus Vulnerable to all forms of Maltreatment in the first 2-3 years of life    Controlling Emotional Reactions   Constructing Verbal memory   Constructing Spatial memory

With the Amygdala,

Manages fear, panic, emotional understanding

Regulates emotionally-appropriate responses

Puts the brakes on outbursts & tantrums

All maltreatmentSexual abuse
 InfancyAge 8-10 Corpus CallosumVulnerable to Neglect in Infancy, and Sexual abuse in elementary school years Integrates Hemispheres-messages between sides of brainLanguage & math proficiency Processing of Social cuesSuch as Facial Expression NeglectSexual abuse
 Age 7-9 Right Temporal CortexVulnerable to emotional abuse Center for Spoken language Emotional abuse
 Prior to puberty CerebellumVulnerable to all maltreatment Center for mental healthNavigation through space All maltreatment
 First 2-3 yrsAge 8-10Age 15-16 CortexVulnerable to all maltreatment, witnessing family violence, and sexual abuse Thinking and judgmentVisionExecutive function

Long-term memory

All maltreatmentWitnessing Family ViolenceSexual abuse

So if the brain does undergo changes both chemically and structurally due to stressors and hormones, what possible outcomes exist?

Effects are seen in 3 areas: COGNITIVE (that’s thinking and learning), SOCIAL SKILLS and MENTAL HEALTH.


  • Slowed language development
  • Attention problems (ADD/ADHD)
  • Speech delay
  • Poor verbal memory/recall
  • Loss of brain matter/IQ


  • Aggression & violent outbursts
  • Poor self-control of emotion
  • Can’t modify behavior in response to social cues
  • Social isolation—can’t navigate friendship


  • Poor social/emotional development
  • Alcohol, tobacco & other drug abuse—vulnerable to early initiation
  • Adolescent & adult mental health disorders—especially depression, suicide, dissociative disorder, borderline personality disorder, PTSD

Many of us have the assumption that traumatized kids learn to behave aggressively when adults are aggressive with them.  And there may be some truth to that.  But in addition the brain research teaches us that there are physical things that happen to the brain and to the brain chemistry that prime the traumatized child to be aggressive, to behave as if the world is malevolent and survival depends on being aggressive first and thinking about it later.

Is a change in thinking due so that we don’t think about aggressiveness as a learned behavior?  Would it be better instead to think about how to help a person who is hard wired for a dangerous world to take characteristics of impulsiveness and aggressiveness and fine-tune those into skills of quick and decisive leadership?  The difference between a life in the penitentiary and life in the Fortune 500 may come down to learning how to be competitive rather than aggressive, how to focus on a goal rather than being anti-social, how to succeed in school rather than fail.    It is like a patient’s grandfather said “Who knows what great things I could have done with my life, if only I had been evaluated and treated for ADHD like my grandson?”



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