Diminished Cortical Thickness Is Associated with Impulsive Choice in Adolescence

J Neurosci. 2018 Mar 7;38(10):2471-2481. doi: 10.1523/JNEUROSCI.2200-17.2018. Epub 2018 Feb 12.


Adolescence is characterized by both maturation of brain structure and increased risk of negative outcomes from behaviors associated with impulsive decision-making. One important index of impulsive choice is delay discounting (DD), which measures the tendency to prefer smaller rewards available soon over larger rewards delivered after a delay. However, it remains largely unknown how individual differences in structural brain development may be associated with impulsive choice during adolescence. Leveraging a unique large sample of 427 human youths (208 males and 219 females) imaged as part of the Philadelphia Neurodevelopmental Cohort, we examined associations between delay discounting and cortical thickness within structural covariance networks. These structural networks were derived using non-negative matrix factorization, an advanced multivariate technique for dimensionality reduction, and analyzed using generalized additive models with penalized splines to capture both linear and nonlinear developmental effects. We found that impulsive choice, as measured by greater discounting, was most strongly associated with diminished cortical thickness in structural brain networks that encompassed the ventromedial prefrontal cortex, orbitofrontal cortex, temporal pole, and temporoparietal junction. Furthermore, structural brain networks predicted DD above and beyond cognitive performance. Together, these results suggest that reduced cortical thickness in regions known to be involved in value-based decision-making is a marker of impulsive choice during the critical period of adolescence.SIGNIFICANCE STATEMENT Risky behaviors during adolescence, such as initiation of substance use or reckless driving, are a major source of morbidity and mortality. In this study, we present evidence from a large sample of youths that diminished cortical thickness in specific structural brain networks is associated with impulsive choice. Notably, the strongest association between impulsive choice and brain structure was seen in regions implicated in value-based decision-making; namely, the ventromedial prefrontal and orbitofrontal cortices. Moving forward, such neuroanatomical markers of impulsivity may aid in the development of personalized interventions targeted to reduce risk of negative outcomes resulting from impulsivity during adolescence.

Keywords: adolescence; delay discounting; development; impulsivity; networks; neuroimaging.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Adolescent Behavior*
  • Cerebral Cortex / diagnostic imaging*
  • Child
  • Cognition / physiology
  • Decision Making
  • Delay Discounting
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Image Processing, Computer-Assisted
  • Impulsive Behavior*
  • Magnetic Resonance Imaging
  • Male
  • Nerve Net / diagnostic imaging
  • Nerve Net / pathology
  • Neuropsychological Tests
  • Prefrontal Cortex / diagnostic imaging
  • Psychomotor Performance / physiology
  • Reward
  • Young Adult