The role of serotonin in the regulation of patience and impulsivity

Mol Neurobiol. 2012 Apr;45(2):213-24. doi: 10.1007/s12035-012-8232-6. Epub 2012 Jan 20.


Classic theories suggest that central serotonergic neurons are involved in the behavioral inhibition that is associated with the prediction of negative rewards or punishment. Failed behavioral inhibition can cause impulsive behaviors. However, the behavioral inhibition that results from predicting punishment is not sufficient to explain some forms of impulsive behavior. In this article, we propose that the forebrain serotonergic system is involved in "waiting to avoid punishment" for future punishments and "waiting to obtain reward" for future rewards. Recently, we have found that serotonergic neurons increase their tonic firing rate when rats await food and water rewards and conditioned reinforcer tones. The rate of tonic firing during the delay period was significantly higher when rats were waiting for rewards than for tones, and rats were unable to wait as long for tones as for rewards. These results suggest that increased serotonergic neuronal firing facilitates waiting behavior when there is the prospect of a forthcoming reward and that serotonergic activation contributes to the patience that allows rats to wait longer. We propose a working hypothesis to explain how the serotonergic system regulates patience while waiting for future rewards.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Behavior / physiology*
  • Brain / anatomy & histology
  • Brain / physiology*
  • Humans
  • Impulsive Behavior / physiopathology*
  • Rats
  • Serotonin / physiology*


  • Serotonin