Got a Brat for a Kid? It May Be Medical

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Increasingly, it looks as though children with Attention Deficit-Hyperactivity Disorder, rather than being brats by choice, are really governed by a medical condition. According to a study in the current issue of the medical journal the Lancet, children with ADHD may have a lower-than-normal amount of the chemical dopamine, which is associated with concentration and motivation. ADHD children, says the report, have an average of 70 percent more dopamine transporters in their brains than other children — evidence, researchers think, that these brains developed the extra transporters in a vain effort to compensate for a lack of dopamine. Couple that finding with a report earlier this week from National Institute of Mental Health that said the disorder is most effectively treated with medications, such as Ritalin, and you have an emerging consensus that ADHD is a real physical disorder.

Still, there remains a question of cause and effect: Do kids have ADHD because their brains don't produce enough dopamine, or do their brains not produce enough dopamine because of external factors? "Would this problem afflict our children if we were still out on the frontier battling elephants?" asks TIME science writer Christine Gorman. "Probably not." Many attribute the symptoms of ADHD — short attention span, fidgetiness, lack of motivation — to modernity's sensory overload: Perhaps the brain is merely compensating for the five hours of electronic media the average child absorbs each day. And we thought this information revolution was making us smarter.