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J Psychopharmacol. 1998;12(1):68-78.

5-hydroxytryptamine and impulse control: prospects for a behavioural analysis.

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Department of Psychiatry, University of Nottingham, Queen's Medical Centre, UK.


Impulsiveness is a significant clinical problem associated with a variety of psychiatric and neuropsychiatric disorders. Clinical and experimental studies have provided evidence that individuals displaying impulsive behaviour tend to show signs of deficient functioning of the ascending 5-hydroxytryptaminergic (5-HTergic) pathways of the brain. A persistent problem in investigations of the biological basis of impulsive behaviour has been the lack of a satisfactory definition of 'impulsiveness', as distinct from other behavioural features, such as aggression, which are often apparent in 'impulsive' individuals. Research in the experimental analysis of behaviour suggests that two important characteristics of 'impulsiveness' are (i) deficient tolerance of delay of gratification and (ii) inability to inhibit or delay voluntary behaviour; both of these characteristics are amenable to study in laboratory animals. We describe some delayed reinforcement and delayed response paradigms which purport to capture these behavioural characteristics, and review recent evidence that manipulation of 5-HTergic function alters behaviour in these paradigms. It is argued that the two characteristics of 'impulsiveness' are themselves the product of disturbance of more fundamental behavioural processes; the nature of these processes is considered.

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