Dissecting impulsivity and its relationships to drug addictions

Ann N Y Acad Sci. 2014 Oct:1327:1-26. doi: 10.1111/nyas.12388. Epub 2014 Mar 21.


Addictions are often characterized as forms of impulsive behavior. That said, it is often noted that impulsivity is a multidimensional construct, spanning several psychological domains. This review describes the relationship between varieties of impulsivity and addiction-related behaviors, the nature of the causal relationship between the two, and the underlying neurobiological mechanisms that promote impulsive behaviors. We conclude that the available data strongly support the notion that impulsivity is both a risk factor for, and a consequence of, drug and alcohol consumption. While the evidence indicating that subtypes of impulsive behavior are uniquely informative--either biologically or with respect to their relationships to addictions--is convincing, multiple lines of study link distinct subtypes of impulsivity to low dopamine D2 receptor function and perturbed serotonergic transmission, revealing shared mechanisms between the subtypes. Therefore, a common biological framework involving monoaminergic transmitters in key frontostriatal circuits may link multiple forms of impulsivity to drug self-administration and addiction-related behaviors. Further dissection of these relationships is needed before the next phase of genetic and genomic discovery will be able to reveal the biological sources of the vulnerability for addiction indexed by impulsivity.

Keywords: decision making; inhibition; vulnerability.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Behavior, Addictive*
  • Brain / drug effects*
  • Brain / metabolism
  • Disease Susceptibility*
  • Down-Regulation / drug effects
  • Humans
  • Impulsive Behavior*
  • Nerve Tissue Proteins / drug effects
  • Neurons / drug effects*
  • Neurons / metabolism
  • Receptors, Dopamine D2 / metabolism
  • Risk Factors
  • Serotonergic Neurons / drug effects
  • Serotonergic Neurons / metabolism
  • Substance-Related Disorders / epidemiology
  • Substance-Related Disorders / metabolism
  • Substance-Related Disorders / psychology*
  • Synaptic Transmission / drug effects
  • Translational Research, Biomedical*


  • DRD2 protein, human
  • Nerve Tissue Proteins
  • Receptors, Dopamine D2