The Neuroscience of Impulse Control

The Neuroscience of Impulse Control

An inability to impulse control and substance abuse have been linked for a long time. But are the impulsive actions of individuals who have an addiction the cause of the addiction or the result of it?

Cause or Effect?

Everyone has some level of impulsivity within them. Some individuals are consistently acting on a whim while others don’t make a move without considering all consequences. However, as a personality trait, those individuals who are impulsive are often genetically predisposed to addiction. Furthermore, those individuals who have been addicted to drugs or are addicted have subtle neuroanatomical changes in their brain. So what comes first? The lack of impulse control or the addiction? The answer to that is not clear. Scientists are a long way from fully understanding the links between behavior, neuroanatomy and genetics.

There was a study carried out between Yale University, Harvard University and Massachusetts General Hospital, which investigated the neuroanatomy of 1,234 males and females who had no history of substance abuse, dependency or psychiatric disorders. The participants answered questionnaires assessing personality traits, specifically an interest in sensation seeking and impulsivity. The researchers also took MRI scans for each participant to be able to chart various aspects of their neuroanatomy.

Impulse Control and the Brain

The results of the study were published in The Journal of Neuroscience. They showed that those participants who had a naturally impulsive character were more likely to have a thinner cortex, i.e. less gray matter, in regions of the brain associated with decision making and self control. These changes were most marked in the two areas of the brain which are considered important in regulating emotions and behavior. Furthermore, those changes to the brain also correlated well with the participants self reported tendency to act on impulse, and also linked with an increase in alcohol, tobacco and caffeine use.

So what does this tell us? The fact that the participants in the study were healthy and not struggling with an addiction means that the differences in brain anatomy are not due substance abuse or mental illness.

It is important to note that this is still an area of fledgling research. Another study found that self control was linked to selfishness and is also influenced by the part of the brain responsible for social decision making, which involves acts of community and selflessness. The study went as far as to suggest that an individual who is more generous with others could improve their own self control.

Blueprints for Recovery understands the unique challenges that young adults face when approaching recovery. We understand that the circumstances that lead people to treatment and addiction are different for everyone. Our staff and programs support individualized programs to help resolve addictive behaviors and get them on the path to recovery and healing. Call us today on 877-594-4901.


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