What do ADHD, Dopamine, and a Beach Ball Toss Have in Common?

You may hear adults with ADHD talk about “chasing the dopamine.” What does “chasing the dopamine” mean? What is the relationship between dopamine and ADHD?

One of the most significant differences between an ADHD brain and a non-ADHD brain lies in the levels of norepinephrine, a neurotransmitter synthesized from dopamine.

Experts believe that lower levels of both dopamine and norepinephrine are associated with ADHD.

An imbalance in dopamine transmission may contribute to symptoms like inattention and impulsivity.

Additionally, disruptions in the dopamine reward pathway affect how the ADHD brain perceives reward and pleasure.

So what does all of this have to do with a beach ball?  

(The numbers used in this example are for illustration purposes only, and do not represent the actual numbers or ratios of dopamine receptors in the brain for people with and without ADHD.)

Think of two different groups of people who stand in a circle, to play catch with beach balls.  Each of these groups form in circles of the same size. There are two sizes of beach balls: Large and small.

The larger beach balls represent the dopamine in the brain. The smaller beach balls represent the norepinephrine, the neurotransmitter synthesized from dopamine. Each circle of people starts with three large beach balls.

The first group has 10 people, and the second group has 100 people. You can’t help but notice the distance between the people playing catch in the first group. In this first group, the 10 people, in comparison to the group of 100 people, could represent the lower numbers of dopamine receptors in the brain of someone diagnosed with ADHD. 

The second group of 100 people, to form the same size circle, as the group of 10 people, stand closer together. They represent the higher numbers of dopamine receptors in the brain with someone who does not have ADHD.

Now imagine a person standing outside of the circles of people. That person is holding smaller beach balls. Every time a large beach ball is touched five times in a circle of people, that person outside throws a smaller beach ball, representing norepinephrine, into that group.

In thinking about this, it would make sense that the group with 10 people (dopamine receptors) would have more difficulties playing catch successfully with larger gaps in the circle, compared to the group of 100 people. It would be more difficult for people to naturally balance the amount of participation from everyone in the group while also trying to throw and catch the ball quickly. The gaps in a circle of 10 people would also make transmission of the ball from one person to another slower than in the group of 100 people. With a circle of 100 people, it would be easier for the people to throw and catch the ball with more frequency, increasing the synthesis of norepinephrine.

How does this relate to ADHD?

Together, both dopamine and norepinephrine have their own roles in supporting executive functioning.

Dopamine is associated with:

  1. Organizing and beginning activities

  2. Switching between tasks in one or more activities 

  3. Recognizing new information from previous material, which promotes learning and memory

  4. Motivation and expectations of  rewards 

Norepinephrine, which is secreted by dopamine is associated with:

  1. Maintaining alertness during activities

  2. Managing the volume of what is being heard in communication, compared to the background noise

  3. Being able to attend to and initiate behaviors associated with a specific goal

  4. Being able to access cognitive information during times of crisis

Both knowing and understanding how symptoms of ADHD affect a person can assist with the identification and implementation of targeted interventions to improve overall functioning.


Chagnon, S., & Neurologist, A. (n.d.). THE NEUROBIOLOGY OF ADHD - UNDERSTANDING THE BASICS. Retrieved May 29, 2024, from https://cba-va.org/wp-content/uploads/2024/04/The-Neurobiology-of-ADHD-Dr.-Sarah-Chagnon-CHKD.pdf