Impulsivity as a vulnerability marker for substance-use disorders: Review of findings from high-risk research, problem gamblers and genetic association studies


There is a longstanding association between substance-use disorders (SUDs) and the psychological construct of impulsivity. In the first section of this review, personality and neurocognitive data pertaining to impulsivity will be summarised in regular users of four classes of substance: stimulants, opiates, alcohol and 3,4-methylenedioxymethamphetamine (MDMA). Impulsivity in these groups may arise via two alternative mechanisms, which are not mutually exclusive. By one account, impulsivity may occur as a consequence of chronic exposure to substances causing harmful effects on the brain. By the alternative account, impulsivity pre-dates SUDs and is associated with the vulnerability to addiction. We will review the evidence that impulsivity is associated with addiction vulnerability by considering three lines of evidence: (i) studies of groups at high-risk for development of SUDs; (ii) studies of pathological gamblers, where the harmful consequences of the addiction on brain structure are minimised, and (iii) genetic association studies linking impulsivity to genetic risk factors for addiction. Within each of these three lines of enquiry, there is accumulating evidence that impulsivity is a pre-existing vulnerability marker for SUDs.

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