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Is ADHD Genetic? How Your Genes Can Help You Boost Attention

Written by Jim Duncan, MSW | Last updated:

Paying attention can be hard enough to do in the modern world even without the difficulty of attention-deficit-hyperactivity-disorder. Some people, however, can’t help it. Their minds have great difficulty staying on course or rather can’t resist following every side path along the way. Their parents seemed to move through life just fine, so why do they have it? Is ADHD genetic? Can your genes help you find focus? Let’s find out.

Introduction To ADHD And Genetics

ADHD affects millions of children, teenagers, and adults in the US. Interestingly, more boys are diagnosed with ADHD than girls [1]. That said, living with ADHD doesn’t necessarily limit one’s potential. In fact, it’s suspected that Leonardo da Vinci may have had ADHD, and a number of successful people from singers to athletes have come forward about their struggles with the condition [2, 3, 4].

The ADHD cliche is that of a child struggling to concentrate on their schoolwork or being hyperactive all the time. But this isn’t the whole story of ADHD. Those kids grow up and become adults, who continue to have issues, to the tune of about 4.4% of American adults [1]. Children and teens with ADHD tend to have trouble with school. They might also experience problems with relationships [5, 6, 7, 8]. It’s much more than, “Oh look! Squirrel!”

Cases of ADHD have boomed since the turn of the century, with a massive 43% increase. There are a lot of factors involved in this increase that likely have little or nothing to do with more people developing ADHD, and more to do with the development of medications and access to healthcare. The majority of these cases are in children. Today, around 6.4 million American children aged 4-17 have ADHD [9, 10].

One important factor that can influence your odds of struggling with ADHD is genetic, although your environment can also play a role. Genes involved in ADHD may influence [11, 12, 13, 14, 15, 16, 16]:

What is ADHD?

In comparison to people with normal attention span, individuals with ADHD tend to measure lower in reaction time variability, intelligence/achievement, vigilance, working memory, and response inhibition. This tends to support the basic idea that ADHD issues arise because the brain has difficulty switching from rest mode to an active mode [17].

There is research indicating that ADHD brains may be different. In essence, parts of the ADHD brain may be wired differently, not allowing it to turn things off when it should [18]. This is why people with ADHD have a much harder time staying focused on things, to the point that it can make daily living difficult [19]. Adults with ADHD are more likely to experience [20]:

  • Substance abuse
  • Car accidents
  • Money problems

While the general causes of ADHD can be understood, they are extremely difficult to narrow down. It also matters that the disorder manifests itself in various ways. For some it’s the attention part, others the hyperactivity, and for still others it is both. This variability is part of why it is so difficult to treat.

Treatment for ADHD usually involves symptom management and includes talk therapy and medication [19]. You may also take action by learning more about the genetics of ADHD and how you can target your genes to potentially improve your focus.

The Risk Factors For ADHD

The specific cause of ADHD is unknown, but research does suggest that there are certain risk factors for developing it. They include [21]:

  • Maternal use of cigarettes, drugs, or alcohol during pregnancy
  • Environmental toxins
  • Brain injuries
  • Genetics

Yes, when it comes to ADHD, genetics can play a role, as you might have guessed. There is no genetic test for ADHD, as it has no specific gene associated with it. But targeting your genetics can potentially help increase your attention span [22].

The Genetics Of ADHD

ADHD is highly heritable. Up to 80% of differences in people’s chances of developing ADHD may be attributed to genetics, with a number of genes involved. Studies show that about a third of this heritability is polygenic, that is, it involves the combination of many variants adding their small risks together [11, 12, 13, 14, 15, 16, 16]. You can learn more about polygenic risks in this informative video:

Due to ADHD’s issue with switching the brain from active to calm, any genetic influences on dopamine could make the symptoms better or worse, depending. There are a number of genes that can do this, and here are three examples that in combination would function to hinder the ability to manage ADHD or to make it more likely to develop.

The first two are similar in function. DRD4 and DRD5 are both dopamine receptors and help with dopamine signaling in the brain. Variants in these genes can decrease the amount of dopamine in the brain, which may influence how likely you are to have an attention disorder.

Another gene that plays a role is the COMT gene. This gene makes an enzyme that helps to break down dopamine, among other things. Variants can either increase or decrease the amount of dopamine broken down.

We don’t have a way to measure the amount of dopamine in your body. There are numerous ways low or high amounts can affect you, and different levels can have different effects in different parts of the brain. There are a number of potential ways to boost dopamine levels through diet, exercise, and supplements [23]. The point here would be to optimize your ability to produce dopamine.

Closely related is a variant in the HTR1B gene. This is for a serotonin receptor, and much like the dopamine receptors, it can affect levels of serotonin. Studies have demonstrated that taking L-tryptophan, which your body uses to make serotonin, may help alleviate ADHD symptoms [24].

How Can Analyzing Your DNA Help You Boost Attention 

Having your DNA analyzed can help you understand what risk factors are relevant to you based on your genes and what you can do to address them.

Contrary to what you may think, knowing if your risk of ADHD is genetic can give you an advantage when it comes to managing your symptoms. Targeting your genes may help you understand what’s contributing to your attention issues, and what you can do to boost attention.

Another example of how ADHD and genetics are connected is the CYP1A2 gene. Coffee may sharpen your attention if you carry a particular variant. In addition, you may be more prone to attention problems after a bad night’s sleep if you carry a particular variant of the COMT or ADA genes [25, 26, 27, 28].

Is ADHD Genetic Genes For ADHD

The SelfDecode Attention report allows you to optimize your health by uncovering what your genes are doing behind the scenes to affect your odds of struggling with an attention disorder.

SelfDecode analyzes over 270,000 genetic variants to calculate your genetic risk for experiencing attention issues and provides diet, lifestyle, and supplement recommendations to help you improve your focus. By signing up for SelfDecode, you gain access to over 35 DNA wellness reports, including Attention, Brain Fog, and Fatigue.

Concluding Remarks About ADHD And Genetics

ADHD is one of those disorders that comes with a checkered past with regard to diagnosis and treatment. It has garnered its share of controversy over the years.

Regardless, during all of this time, children have had to endure the symptoms that make growing up that much more difficult. Adults who were never able to address it as children must manage the consequences as adults. It’s difficult to diagnose and treat because the brain is the most complicated part of the body to deal with.

One factor that may play a role in ADHD is genetics, but it doesn’t mean you’re doomed. Knowing your genetic predispositions can help you target your problem genes and potentially sharpen your focus.

Be proactive and start today by investigating your DNA to discover how you can gain a better understanding of how your genetics may be affecting ADHD. For gene-based recommendations to boost attention, you should check out SelfDecode.


About the Author

Jim Duncan

Jim completed his M.S.W. in Social Work Administration at Portland State University. He has always been interested in analyzing social issues, and he helped fund and start a program against domestic violence. He has also conducted many public speaking sessions about violence against women, and published 3 fiction novels. Inspired by SelfDecode’s mission to make precision health a reality, he decided to use his natural writing ability to help teach the world about the power and promise of genomics. His areas of interest include science-based writing,  astronomy, and genomics.


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