What is the Connection Between ADHD and Bipolar Disorder?

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  • Written By: wiseGEEK Writer
  • Edited By: O. Wallace
  • Last Modified Date: 18 January 2019
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The correlation between attention deficit hyperactivity disorder or ADHD and bipolar disorder is complex and not fully defined. These two conditions may occur concurrently and can be mistaken for each other. They share similar symptoms, though attention to how these symptoms are expressed may make it easier to render a diagnosis. Additionally, patient response to drug treatment may reveal whether a correct diagnosis has been made.

Experts feel that there could be a genetic or medical link between ADHD and bipolar disorder. Recent studies don’t fully support this. Evidence that ADHD is more common in children exposed to higher levels of pesticides is contrasted to the understanding that bipolar disorder is often inherited. A child of a bipolar parent has a four to eight time greater risk of developing the disease than a child without this heritage. It’s possible that genetics and pesticide exposure affect the same areas of the brain, creating these conditions, but this remains unproven.

A distinction is made between how ADHD and bipolar are classified. ADHD is considered a cognitive condition; it affects thought process. Bipolar disorder affects mood and represents an inability to regulate mood state. Nevertheless, some of the symptoms of both conditions look alike.


Both conditions may be characterized by mood shifts, sleep difficulties, tendency to talk too much, distractibility, and anxiety. In bipolar disorder, talkativeness and distractibility are most common in manic or hypomanic states. They don’t occur at all times because individuals with this condition cycle through moods.

When a bipolar sufferer shifts to a depressed mood, they still may be easy to distract and have difficulty paying attention, but predominantly, energy level is often significantly decreased, and moods may oscillate between profound sadness and sudden bursts of severe anger. Moreover, mood swings can be separated by periods of normalcy, where someone with bipolar disorder might no6 have any cognitive or mood dysfunction at all, but these symptoms usually return. It’s simply important to note that a key differential diagnosis is that bipolar disorder only looks like ADHD some of the time.

On the other hand, ADHD could resemble a hypomanic state most of the time. Usually, treatment with stimulants ought to resolve ADHD, but if the person truly has a mood disorder, hypomania could easily become mania, worsening symptoms. If there is an underlying mood disorder, it first requires treatment and if ADHD symptoms remain, careful use of stimulants could help resolve the problem.

One of the most complex aspects of treatment is that occasionally medication for bipolar disorder results in some errors of cognition in a person who previously had no ADHD symptoms. Certain drugs like lithium may make people feel hazy or unfocused. Even in the absence of ADHD, some psychiatrists are trying use of stimulant medications to partially relieve these symptoms, which may be effective.

Ultimately, ADHD and bipolar are difficult, but not impossible, to tell apart. Bipolar is characterized by stronger mood shifts and more explosive moods, and cognitive symptoms aren’t consistent. ADHD should show fairly consistent symptoms and hyperactive periods are usually lower in intensity than bipolar mania, though similar to hypomania. Having one condition doesn’t rule out the other, and when treatment response is poor, physicians should consider switching diagnosis or the possibility both ADHD and bipolar are present. Recent research suggests gold standard treatment for both conditions is medication and psychotherapy.



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