Background: Impulsivity is prominent in psychiatric disorders. Two dominant models of impulsivity are the reward-discounting model, where impulsivity is defined as inability to wait for a larger reward, and the rapid-response model, where impulsivity is defined as responding without adequate assessment of context. We have compared the role of these models of impulsivity in human psychopathology, based on the hypothesis that rapid-response impulsivity would be more strongly related to other aspects of psychopathology and to impulsivity as described by questionnaires.
Methods: We investigated relationships between personality and laboratory measures of impulsivity, and between these measures and clinical characteristics, in parents of adolescent subjects with disruptive behavioral disorders (DBDs) and matched control subjects. Diagnoses were rendered using the Structured Interview for DSM-IV. The Barratt Impulsiveness Scale (BIS) was used as a trait measure of impulsivity. Rapid-response impulsivity was assessed using a form of the Continuous Performance Test, the Immediate Memory-Delayed Memory Task (IMT/DMT). Reward-delay impulsivity was measured using two tasks where subjects could choose between smaller immediate or larger delayed rewards.
Results: Rapid-response, but not reward-delay impulsivity, was significantly higher in subjects with lifetime Axis I or Axis II diagnoses. Scores on the BIS were elevated in subjects with Axis I diagnoses and correlated significantly with both rapid-response and reward-delay tests, but more strongly with the former. Multiple regression showed that rapid-response, but not reward-delay performance or intelligence quotient, contributed significantly to BIS scores. Correlations were similar in parents of control subjects and of DBD subjects.
Conclusions: These data suggest that measures of rapid-response impulsivity and of reward-delay impulsivity are both related to impulsivity as a personality characteristic. The relationship appears stronger, however, for rapid-response impulsivity, as measured by the IMT/DMT. Laboratory and personality measures of impulsivity appear to be related to risk of psychopathology.