Personalizing substance use treatment based on pre-treatment impulsivity and sensation seeking: A review

Drug Alcohol Depend. 2016 Oct 1;167:1-7. doi: 10.1016/j.drugalcdep.2016.07.022. Epub 2016 Jul 27.


Background: Theoretically, substance use disorder (SUD) treatment that matches an individual's etiology and/or maintaining factors should be more effective than a treatment that does not directly address these factors. Impulsivity and sensation/reward seeking may contribute to the development and maintenance of SUDs, and are potential candidate variables for assigning patients to treatment. The goal is to identify whether current research can provide insight into which treatments may be most effective for individuals high in impulsivity or sensation seeking, relative to other treatments. A secondary goal is to provide recommendations for personalizing SUD treatment based on etiology or maintaining factors.

Method: This review summarizes clinical trials that speak to the differential effectiveness of two or more treatments for alcohol, tobacco, and other drug use disorders, based on pre-treatment impulsivity, sensation seeking, or related constructs.

Results: Few studies examine the differential effectiveness of two or more treatments for individuals high in impulsivity or sensation seeking. Very preliminary evidence suggests that contingency management may hold promise for individuals high in impulsivity. Pharmacological trials were under-represented in the current review, despite evidence that the effectiveness of some pharmacological interventions may be moderated by impulsivity.

Conclusions: Potential reasons for slow rate of progress to date are provided. Given slow accumulation of evidence, an alternative method for personalizing treatment based on pre-treatment psychosocial factors, including impulsivity and sensation/reward seeking, is proposed. Future research may explore the role of contingency management for SUD among individuals with high pre-treatment impulsivity or sensation seeking. Finally, novel, technology-enhanced behavioral mechanisms are discussed as an adjunct to SUD treatment for these high-risk populations.

Keywords: Impulsivity; Precision medicine; Sensation seeking; Substance use disorders; Treatment matching.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Female
  • Humans
  • Impulsive Behavior*
  • Male
  • Precision Medicine / methods*
  • Reward
  • Sensation*
  • Substance-Related Disorders / psychology*
  • Substance-Related Disorders / therapy*