Neurobehavioral mechanisms of impulsivity: fronto-striatal systems and functional neurochemistry

Pharmacol Biochem Behav. 2008 Aug;90(2):250-60. doi: 10.1016/j.pbb.2007.12.021. Epub 2007 Dec 27.


Impulsive acts and decisions are a part of everyday normal behavior. However, in its pathological forms, impulsivity can be a debilitating disorder often associated with a number of neuropsychiatric disorders, including attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). This article reviews recent progress in our understanding of the neurobiology of impulsivity using examples from recent investigations in experimental animals. Evidence is reviewed from several well-established paradigms with putative utility in assessing distinct forms of impulsive behavior in rodents, including the 5-choice serial reaction time (5CSRT) task and the delay discounting paradigm. We discuss, in particular, recent psychopharmacological and in-vivo neurochemical data in task-performing rats showing functional heterogeneity of the forebrain dopamine (DA), noradrenaline (NA), serotonin (5-HT) and acetylcholine (ACh) systems and identify how these systems normally function to facilitate flexible goal-directed behavior in situations that tax basic attentional functions and inhibitory response control mechanisms. We also discuss future research needs in terms of understanding the functional diversity of different sub-regions of prefrontal cortex (PFC) and how these systems normally interact with the striatum and main nuclei of origin of DA and NA neurons. Finally, we argue in line with others that animal paradigms are unlikely to model all aspects of complex psychiatric conditions such as ADHD but components of such syndromes may be amenable to investigation using sophisticated animal models based on highly-defined psychiatric endophenotypes.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Acetylcholine / metabolism
  • Animals
  • Attention Deficit Disorder with Hyperactivity / drug therapy
  • Attention Deficit Disorder with Hyperactivity / etiology
  • Attention Deficit Disorder with Hyperactivity / metabolism
  • Conditioning, Operant
  • Corpus Striatum / physiology*
  • Dopamine / physiology
  • Humans
  • Impulsive Behavior*
  • Prefrontal Cortex / physiology*
  • Reaction Time
  • Serotonin / physiology


  • Serotonin
  • Acetylcholine
  • Dopamine