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Low Levels of Neurotransmitter Linked to Impulsivity

Although aggressive and impulsive behavior may result from a combination of factors, new research suggests low levels of a brain neurotransmitter may be at least partly to blame.

Impulsive individuals often display aggressive behavior and have challenges ranging from drug and alcohol abuse, to problem gambling and difficult relationships. They often have trouble adapting to different social situations.

A new study published in the journal Biological Psychiatry shows that people may react this way, in part, because they have lower levels of the neurotransmitter GABA (gamma-aminobutyric acid).

GABA is the most important inhibitory neurotransmitter and is expressed in a specific part of the brain involved in regulating self-control.

“Advances in brain imaging techniques mean we are able to investigate different and specific areas of the human brain and see how they regulate people’s behavior,” said Frederic Boy, Ph.D., who led the research.

“What is clear is that the way people behave results from a complex interaction between a number of genetic, social and environmental factors.”

Researchers had men with no history of psychiatric disorders or substance dependence complete a questionnaire designed to assess different aspects of impulsivity. Then they underwent a kind of brain imaging technique (magnetic resonance spectroscopy) to measurement the amount of GABA in small regions of the brain.

Investigators found that men with more GABA in their prefrontal area of the brain had lower scores in one aspect of impulsivity called the “feeling of urgency” — the tendency to act rashly in response to distress or other strong emotions and urges.

Conversely, men with lower GABA tended to have higher urgency ratings. These findings add to evidence that “low GABA may be a risk factor for cortical dysfunction across a number of disorders, as depression and panic disorder are associated with low cortical GABA,” commented Dr. John Krystal, Editor of Biological Psychiatry, which published the research.

Researchers say the findings may also hold true in women, but women were not included in this study due to the possible effect of natural hormonal fluctuations.

The authors say the next component of the research will focus on understanding the relationship between GABA and the prefrontal cortex.

“After that we can start evaluating whether there’s any way in which we could treat a GABA deficit in this area. I suspect this could be difficult, as GABA is present throughout the brain, and raising the level indiscriminately may have all sorts of unforeseen consequences,” said Boy.

“The other area which needs further research is whether GABA levels in the prefrontal cortex fluctuate over time, as this study is simply a snapshot of levels on one given day.”

Source: Elsevier

Low Levels of Neurotransmitter Linked to Impulsivity

Rick Nauert PhD

Rick Nauert, PhDDr. Rick Nauert has over 25 years experience in clinical, administrative and academic healthcare. He is currently an associate professor for Rocky Mountain University of Health Professionals doctoral program in health promotion and wellness. Dr. Nauert began his career as a clinical physical therapist and served as a regional manager for a publicly traded multidisciplinary rehabilitation agency for 12 years. He has masters degrees in health-fitness management and healthcare administration and a doctoral degree from The University of Texas at Austin focused on health care informatics, health administration, health education and health policy. His research efforts included the area of telehealth with a specialty in disease management.

APA Reference
Nauert PhD, R. (2018). Low Levels of Neurotransmitter Linked to Impulsivity. Psych Central. Retrieved on October 1, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Aug 2018 (Originally: 4 Nov 2011)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Aug 2018
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