Impulsivity is often considered a part of someone’s personality, perhaps a trait that can’t be changed. However, scientists at Queen’s university have discovered that impulsive behavior can be helped with training and that when these behaviors improve, a mechanism change occurs in the frontal lobe.
Everyone deals with controlling impulses every day, such as not eating that second piece of chocolate cake. However, some people struggle far more with impulsivity and on a much broader scale than the typical person.
Professor Cella Olmstead, the lead investigator in the study, notes that impulsivity is a major feature in many disorders, including ADHD, obsessive compulsive disorder, addiction and gambling. Children who have a hard time controlling their impulses often continue having behavioral problems into adulthood.
“In the classroom, kids often blurt out answers before they raise their hand. With time, they learn to hold their tongue and put up their hand until the teacher calls them. We wanted to know how this type of learning occurs in the brain,” says Mr. Hayton, a PhD student at the Centre for Neuroscience Studies at Queen’s.
“Our research basically told us where the memory for this type of inhibition is in the brain, and how it is encoded.”
In the study, a research team headed by neuroscience PhD student Scott Hayton trained rats to control their impulsive responses until they were given an “OK” signal.
As the rats restrained their actions, scientists observed that the electrical signals between cells in the frontal lobe became stronger. This phenomenon proved that impulsivity is represented, in a specific brain region, by a change in communication between neurons.
For researchers, finding a target in the brain and understanding the associated mechanisms for this behavior is a major step in developing the right treatments for disorders that involve extremely strong impulses.
“In conditions where learning does not occur properly, it is possible that it is this mechanism that has been impaired,” adds co-investigator neuroscience Professor Eric Dumont.
Besides impulse control, the frontal lobe of the brain is involved in many functions including spontaneity, problem solving, motor function, language, memory, initiation, judgment, and social and sexual behavior. In fact, this part of the brain is thought of as the emotional control center and home to the personality.
In addition to ADHD and addictions, there are other disorders that are marked by impulsivity. Intermittent explosive disorder, kleptomania, pyromania and trichotillomania (a disorder in which sufferers compulsively pull out their hair) are labeled under the umbrella term Impulse Control Disorders.
The study’s findings are significant as they could have a profound impact on the diagnosis and healing of many types of disorders and addictions.
The findings were recently published in The Journal of Neuroscience.
Source: Queen’s University