Impulsivity: a discussion of clinical and experimental findings

J Psychopharmacol. 1999;13(2):180-92. doi: 10.1177/026988119901300211.


Impulsivity can often be an important clinical problem in psychiatry and neurology. In psychiatry, the manifestation of impulsive behaviour in syndromes such as personality disorders, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and in substance abuse may be different, and this has led to conflicting definitions. There has also been a tendency to concentrate on the nature of the behavioural manifestation (problems with the law, aggression, drug use, behavioural problems in school) rather than shared psychological processes, and to ignore the fact that impulsivity can also have positive aspects. In a normal population, the personality trait of impulsivity has been analysed using personality inventory questionnaires. Analysis of these data lead to the suggestion that impulsivity as commonly defined and understood may be made up of several independent factors, which may have separate biological bases. These self-rating questionnaires have been complemented by objective tests that are now often computerized, and which have been used in man (e.g. with criminal offenders, children, or patients who have undergone brain surgery). Some of these tests, such as the differential reinforcement of low rates procedure or the delay of reinforcement procedure, have also been used to study impulsivity in animals. Analysis of the behavioural principles of these tests suggests that they too may reflect different aspects of impulsivity. Many different biological systems have been proposed to contribute to the neurobiological basis of impulsivity. The serotonergic neurotransmitter system has recently received the most attention, with evidence of its involvement coming from animal studies as well as from studies in psychiatric patients. The frontal lobes have been proposed to play an important role in regulating impulsivity, although it unclear how specific this is. None of this biological knowledge has yet led to reliable pharmacotherapy for excessive impulsivity and, as yet, there is little understanding of the mechanisms by which those drugs, which have been found empirically to have some efficacy (e.g. the psychomotor stimulants in attention deficit hyperactivity disorder), exert their therapeutic effect. By bringing together knowledge from different areas of research it is hoped that a cross fertilization will be achieved, which will lead to a sharpening of concepts, an improvement in methodology and the stimulation of biological studies.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Animals
  • Attention Deficit Disorder with Hyperactivity / drug therapy
  • Attention Deficit Disorder with Hyperactivity / physiopathology
  • Attention Deficit Disorder with Hyperactivity / psychology
  • Central Nervous System Stimulants / therapeutic use
  • Child
  • Disruptive, Impulse Control, and Conduct Disorders / drug therapy
  • Disruptive, Impulse Control, and Conduct Disorders / physiopathology
  • Disruptive, Impulse Control, and Conduct Disorders / psychology*
  • Female
  • Frontal Lobe / physiopathology
  • Humans
  • Impulsive Behavior / drug therapy
  • Impulsive Behavior / physiopathology
  • Impulsive Behavior / psychology*
  • Male
  • Personality Disorders / drug therapy
  • Personality Disorders / physiopathology
  • Personality Disorders / psychology
  • Psychophysiology
  • Rats
  • Serotonin / physiology


  • Central Nervous System Stimulants
  • Serotonin