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The link between impulsivity and alcoholism

Posted on 04-12-16 in Cognition, Substance Abuse

The link between impulsivity and alcoholism

Impulsive behavior and the inability to harness it have long been linked with alcohol consumption. This prevails in both the preliminary urge to drink and relapse. A new report published in Biological Psychiatry explores why people with alcoholism make a particular kind of dysfunctional decision: the tendency to act on impulses.

What is impulsivity?

Behavioral control fundamentally constitutes waiting and stopping before taking action. The tendency of acting without sufficient deliberation is what largely defines impulsivity. Essentially, impulsivity is the inclination toward hasty, spontaneous response to internal or external stimuli with lowered consideration for negative consequences.

The neurotransmitters dopamine and gamma-amino butyric acid (GABA) are accountable for impulsive behavioral tendencies. Alcohol is known to increase the effects of both. For someone who already struggles from an imbalance of these neurotransmitters, the very least amount of alcohol holds the potential to amplify impulsiveness. This means that a single drink can easily pave way for many more, which may lead to further impulsive behaviors as a consequence.

The study

The tendency of inadequate behavioral control is one of the characteristic trademarks of individuals susceptible to alcohol use disorders.

Waiting impulsivity, the tendency to act prematurely, has been preclinically approved as a predictor for addiction. The study charted the inherent neural correlates of waiting and detached it from stopping, both primary mechanisms of behavioral control.

“This study suggests why some people are prone to impulsive decision making,” stated Dr. John Krystal, editor of Biological Psychiatry. “It sheds light on why cognitive behavioral therapies that help people to be a bit more reflective may help them to make better life choices.”

Previous studies have depicted rodents with high waiting impulsivity to be more susceptible to the development of addictive behavioral tendencies. Researchers at the University of Cambridge, led by Dr. Valerie Voon, charted out the neural correlates of behavioral control through a translational activity and resting state to assess impulsivity of a similar nature in humans.

The researchers utilized a newly developed translational task to evaluate untimely responses and reservations to responses by using the stop signal task. Fifty-five healthy volunteers participated in a novel multiecho resting-state functional magnetic resonance imaging sequence and examination, which vigorously enhances the signal-to-noise ratio.

It was discovered that waiting impulsivity in healthy volunteers was linked with lower connectivity of the subthalamic nucleus with ventral striatum and subgenual cingulate, the same brain regions that were occupied in rodent studies.

Binge drinkers at greater risks of elevated impulsivity

In another study, researchers assessed 32 young binge drinkers and 36 abstinent controls with alcohol use disorders. The findings revealed binge drinkers to exhibit greater impulsivity. Both binge drinkers and participants with alcohol use disorders displayed lowered subthalamic nucleus connectivity.

“The same connections are impaired in alcohol misuse across social drinkers, binge drinkers and alcohol dependent subjects,” commented Voon, a Wellcome Trust Fellow at the University of Cambridge. “Connectivity of the subthalamic nucleus, a brain region involved in switching from automatic to controlled behaviors, can classify problem drinkers from social drinkers.”

It is important for patients seeking alcohol or drug addiction rehabilitation to learn how to manage and control their impulses in order to achieve a successful recovery. Sovereign Health is a leading behavioral health treatment provider, devoted to the provision of evidence-based treatment for substance abuse disorders, mental illnesses, eating disorders and co-occurring conditions. If you or a loved one is currently struggling with an opioid addiction, help is just a phone call away.

About the author

Sana Ahmed is a staff writer for Sovereign Health Group. A journalist and social media savvy content developer with extensive research, print and on-air interview skills, Sana has previously worked as an editor for a business magazine and been an on-air news broadcaster. She writes to share the amazing developments from the mental health world and unsuccessfully attempts to diagnose her friends and family. For more information and other inquiries about this article, contact the author at