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Psychopharmacology (Berl). 2009 Nov;207(1):163-72. doi: 10.1007/s00213-009-1645-x.

Impulsivity and response inhibition in alcohol dependence and problem gambling.

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  • 1Behavioural and Clinical Neuroscience Institute, University of Cambridge, Cambridge CB2 3EB, UK.



Impulsivity is a central feature of drug addiction and may arise as a result of impaired inhibitory control. The extent to which inhibitory deficits arise as a consequence of drug exposure or relate to pre-existing addiction vulnerability is unknown.


This study compared measures of impulsivity in outpatients with alcohol dependence (n = 23) and problem gambling (n = 21), a putative behavioural addiction where direct effects of drug exposure may be minimal. Healthy controls (n = 27) were also tested, in a cross-sectional design. Subjects completed the stop-signal test as a neurocognitive probe of response inhibition, alongside self-report ratings of impulsivity, adult ADHD and OCD.


On the stop-signal test, Go reaction time and stop-signal reaction time were significantly slower in the alcohol-dependent group, compared with healthy controls. Healthy controls slowed their responding after successful and failed stop trials. Slowing after failed stop trials was significantly attenuated in the alcohol-dependent subjects. Go reaction time and post-error slowing were correlated with chronicity and severity, respectively, in the alcohol-dependent subjects. Problem gamblers did not differ significantly from controls on the stop-signal test, despite trait elevations in impulsivity ratings.


Inhibitory control is impaired in alcohol dependence but occurs in the context of psychomotor slowing. In addition, alcohol-dependent individuals failed to show behavioral adjustment following failed stops. These deficits may represent direct effects of chronic alcohol administration on fronto-striatal circuitry.

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