Reticular Activating System: The ADHD Brain and Behavior

As you research ADD and ADHD, it’s likely you will come across information about the “reticular activating system” and “reticular formation.” What do these terms refer to? Basically, the reticular activating system is part of the brainstem. It is believed that ADD/ADHD is caused by a problem in the reticular activating system.

The reticular formation is part of the reticular activating system. The reticular formation is a collection of nerve cells, or nuclei, at the core of the brainstem. The reticular formation receives input from the body regarding sight, smell, taste, and other senses. It is also linked to motor functions, awareness, and sleep.

Fibers from the reticular formation create a network called the reticular activating system. The reticular activating system is involved in wakefulness, arousal, and consciousness. The reticular activating system’s role in consciousness is vital, but indirect. Therefore, while a healthy reticular activating system is necessary for consciousness to occur, the reticular activating system does not, by itself, produce the conscious state.

The center of arousal and motivation is thought to be located in the reticular activating system. Extreme damage to the reticular activating system may lead to a permanent coma.

In addition to consciousness, the reticular activating system is said to be involved with the circadian rhythm (or the “biological clock”). Psychotropic drugs and general anesthesia significantly affect the reticular activating system.

Neuroscientists have been conducting studies on the reticular activating system and its role in behavior, Alzheimer’s disease, and ADD/ADHD. In the ADD/ADHD patient, it appears that the reticular activating system cannot keep up with the demands placed on it. This leads to over-arousal, under-motivation, and the other symptoms of ADD/ADHD.

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