The pharmacology of impulsive behaviour in rats: the effects of drugs on response choice with varying delays of reinforcement

Psychopharmacology (Berl). 1996 Nov;128(2):161-70. doi: 10.1007/s002130050121.


Impulsive behaviour is an important component of many psychiatric syndromes. It is often expressed as aggressive or violent behaviour, but may also be non-violent. One important factor which might lead to aggression or violence is an inability to tolerate a delay of gratification, leading to frustration and aggressive outbursts. In animals and in man, tolerance to delay of gratification can be studied using delay of reinforcement (also known as self-control) procedures. Experiments with delay of reinforcement in rats show that serotonergic mechanisms may be involved in this form of impulsive behaviour, which seems to support clinical findings in this area. The present experiment examined the effects of a series of psychoactive drugs on delays of reinforcement using a steady state operant procedure involving lever-pressing by rats. Rats were trained to choose between one food pellet delivered immediately and three or five pellets delivered after varying delays which increased during the course of the session. Using this procedure the rats remained sensitive to within-and between-session variations in delay of reinforcement even after long periods of testing. It was used to demonstrate an increase in impulsivity (after d-amphetamine) and a reduction in impulsivity (after diazepam and metergoline), indicated by shifts in the choice/delay function. The other drugs tested, imipramine, citalopram, haloperidol and carbamazepine, had no consistent effects although tested at doses which are active in other procedures. This method has proved to be a useful way of examining the effects of drugs on choice of delay of reinforcement in the rat. Although the behavioural basis of tolerance to delay of reinforcement (self-control) has received considerable attention, little is yet known about the biological basis. The present data indicate that the procedure described here can be used to elucidate the pharmacological basis of this aspect of impulsive behaviour.

Publication types

  • Comparative Study

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Central Nervous System Agents / therapeutic use*
  • Impulsive Behavior / drug therapy*
  • Male
  • Metergoline / therapeutic use
  • Psychotropic Drugs / therapeutic use*
  • Rats
  • Rats, Sprague-Dawley
  • Reinforcement, Psychology
  • Serotonin Antagonists / therapeutic use*
  • Time Factors


  • Central Nervous System Agents
  • Psychotropic Drugs
  • Serotonin Antagonists
  • Metergoline