New research shows that people can train their brains to become less impulsive, which could pave the way for new treatments for addictions to gambling, drugs or alcohol, as well as impulse-control disorders, such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).

The study from researchers at the Universities of Exeter and Cardiff assessed whether asking people to stop making simple movements while in a simulated gambling situation affected how risky or cautious they were when betting.

In a first experiment, participants were asked to repeatedly place a bet in a gambling task. The participants, who were all students in good health, were presented with safe options — low gain, high probability — and more risky options — high gain, low probability — and were asked to place their bets by pressing a key on a computer keyboard.

Sometimes, the gambling task was combined with an “inhibition task,” similar to those used to study impulse control in the laboratory, the researchers said. When a “stop” signal was presented, participants were forced to stop themselves from pressing a key.

When forced to stop, participants slowed down and became more cautious in the amount of money they bet each time, the researchers report. This suggests that becoming more cautious about simple movements reduces the tendency to make risky monetary decisions, the researchers hypothesize.

In the second and third experiments, the researchers examined whether training people to stop hand responses to arbitrary stimuli presented on a computer screen would also have longer-term effects on gambling. The researchers said they found that a short period of inhibition training reduced gambling by 10 to 15 percent, “a small but statistically significant reduction,” and that this effect lasted at least two hours.

“Our research shows that by training themselves to stop simple hand movements, people can also learn to control their decision-making processes to avoid placing risky bets,” said cognitive psychologist Dr. Frederick Verbruggen of the University of Exeter, lead researcher on the study.

“This work could have important practical implications for the treatment of behavioral addictions, such as pathological gambling, which have previously been associated with impaired impulse control, and more specifically, deficits in stopping actions.”

The researchers are now exploring the relevance of their findings on other addictions, such as smoking and overeating, he said.

“Addictions are very complex and individual, and our approach would only target one aspect of the problem,” he said. “However, we are very excited about the potential of helping a proportion of people whose lives are affected by gambling and other addictions.”

“These results suggest that our impulses are controlled by highly connected brain systems, reaching from the most basic motor actions to more complicated risky decisions,” added Dr. Chris Chambers of Cardiff University’s School of Psychology.

“Our study shows that inhibition training reduces risk-taking during gambling in healthy volunteers but it does not show that inhibition training reduces gambling addiction. More studies are now needed to discover whether training people to boost a low-level ‘inhibitory muscle’ could help treat addictions, but these initial findings are promising.”

The study is published in the journal Psychological Science.

Source: University of Exeter