Neurobiology of impulsivity: the origin of the loss of control

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Have you ever spoken or reacted without thinking, hurting someone? Few events can trigger consequences as negative as losing control of our behavior. What happens in the brain in those situations?

Don’t you have the feeling that sometimes it’s as if two people live inside us? There is one that is judicious, reflective and calm. The other acts on impulse and automatically, without us having the opportunity to exercise control over it. Impulsiveness is that uncomfortable enemy that leads us to deregulated behaviors that we later regret.

Sometimes, we see ourselves raiding the fridge at night, driven by a rampant anxiety that makes us eat anything. At other times, the impulsive mind is the one that makes hasty decisions for us, causing us to make monumental mistakes.

We would love to always have that thoughtful, meditative approach that reflects before acting. However, no one is exempt from being dominated at some point by that other self that reacts spontaneously without taking into account the consequences of their actions.

Why does this happen? What happens in the brain of that highly impulsive child that it is so difficult for us to educate and instill in him a more thoughtful and relaxed attitude? We analyze it below.

Impulsive behavior is quite common in children and adolescents. However, sometimes it can become a problem when behaviors that are problematic and counterproductive to themselves and others arise.

The prefrontal cerebral cortex (PFC) reaches its development at age 24, when impulse control is complete.

Neurobiology of impulsivity

We can define impulsiveness as that set of unexpected, excessive and unreasoned reactions that we carry out in any situation. What we experience is an almost automatic behavior to a desire or a need. We let ourselves be carried away by a latent emotion without taking into account the consequences of said acts.

It is true that all of us, at some point, have seen ourselves in this type of situation. Especially in our early years. And that this is so is not by chance. Impulsive behavior is common in children and adolescents because their prefrontal cortex does not fully mature until they are 24 years old. This brain region is responsible for exercising executive functions and regulated behavior.

Likewise, it should also be noted that impulsivity is present in numerous psychological disorders . Addictions, anxiety, depression, bipolar disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder , as well as impulse control disorder or antisocial disorder have this same characteristic.

Although it is clear that not all impulsive behavior reveals a mental problem, the question is: what happens in the brain when we act this way? We delve into the neurobiology of impulsivity.

We are impulsive for different reasons

Impulsivity emerges in our behavioral record for different reasons. Knowing these triggers is essential to apply different intervention techniques. Let’s look at those types:

  • The impulsive personality. Often, the education received or the context in which we have been raised and educated favor this intolerant approach to frustration and that responds automatically.
  • Response impulsivity is another typology and would have a biological origin. In this case, we see individuals unable to modulate their responses, to apply self-control, and include a more rational approach.
  • Choice impulsivity defines those behaviors in which a person is unable to delay reinforcement and gratification. They are people who seek immediate enjoyment and who fall into addictive behaviors.

Altered dopaminergic and serotonergic systems

Research from Yale University has delved into the neurobiology of impulsivity . We now know, for example, that one of its triggers lies in the deregulation of the dopaminergic (DA) and serotonergic (5HT) systems.

This alteration in the release of dopamine and serotonin causes people to have problems regulating and controlling their behavior. The cerebral cortex loses functionality and is subject to impulsive mechanisms.

The Impulsivity Peptide

A peptide is a type of molecule formed by the union of several amino acids. Well, this data is interesting, because it has been discovered that the MCH peptide, which also acts as a hormone concentrating melatonin , in turn mediates our impulsivity.

Thus, in a study published in the journal Nature Communications, it has been shown how MCH activates or regulates impulsivity through lateral hypothalamic neurons. Understanding these neural substrates of the neurobiology of impulsivity facilitates the development of increasingly novel treatments to treat dysregulated or problem behaviors.

People with problems controlling food intake show an alteration in the production of the MCH peptide, which has 19 amino acids and is located in the lateral hypothalamic area.

Educating early in impulse control would prevent children from developing many behavior problems in the future.

The genetic origin and why some children are born more impulsive

If there is a fact that would be very useful, it is to detect early who has a greater tendency towards impulsive behavior. This will allow us to give educational guidelines from childhood; The objective will be to prevent different problems associated with mental health.

As striking as it may seem to us, in a few years it seems that we will be able to carry it out. McGill University has developed a technique to diagnose young children who are most at risk for impulsive behavior. The research is currently in the experimental phase, but it has been possible to detect the presence of several genes in the prefrontal cortex and the striatum that mediate this type of pattern.

Identifying this neurobiological signature would facilitate, for example, developing specific programs to educate in impulse control, resistance to frustration and correct emotional management. This would be especially beneficial so that certain people do not suffer future problems.

In conclusion, it should be noted that we now have a much better understanding of the mechanisms of the neurobiology of impulsivity. Each of us can work on and improve that characteristic that, after all, leads us to discomfort, regret, and living with a version of ourselves that we don’t like. Let’s avoid it.


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