Impulsivity traits and neurocognitive mechanisms conferring vulnerability to substance use disorders

Antonio Verdejo-Garcia, Natalia Albein-Urios

Research output: Contribution to journalReview ArticleResearchpeer-review

22 Citations (Scopus)


Impulsivity - the tendency to act without sufficient consideration of potential consequences in pursuit of short-term rewards - is a vulnerability marker for substance use disorders (SUD). Since impulsivity is a multifaceted construct, which encompasses trait-related characteristics and neurocognitive mechanisms, it is important to ascertain which of these aspects are significant contributors to SUD susceptibility. In this review, we discuss how different trait facets, cognitive processes and neuroimaging indices underpinning impulsivity contribute to the vulnerability to SUD. We reviewed studies that applied three different approaches that can shed light on the role of impulsivity as a precursor of substance use related problems (versus a consequence of drug effects): (1) longitudinal studies, (2) endophenotype studies including non-affected relatives of people with SUD, and (3) clinical reference groups-based comparisons, i.e., between substance use and behavioural addictive disorders. We found that, across different methodologies, the traits of non-planning impulsivity and affect-based impulsivity and the cognitive processes involved in reward-related valuation are consistent predictors of SUD vulnerability. These aspects are associated with the structure and function of the medial orbitofrontal-striatal system and hyperexcitability of dopamine receptors in this network. The field still needs more theory-driven, comprehensive studies that simultaneously assess the different aspects of impulsivity in relation to harmonised SUD-related outcomes. Furthermore, future studies should investigate the impact of impulsivity-related vulnerabilities on novel patterns of substance use such as new tobacco and cannabinoid products, and the moderating impact of changes in social norms and lifestyles on the link between impulsivity and SUD.

Original languageEnglish
Article number108402
Number of pages9
Publication statusPublished - 1 Feb 2021


  • Cognitive tests
  • Impulsive action
  • Impulsive choice
  • Neuroimaging
  • Problem drinking
  • Reward
  • Risk
  • Substance use
  • Trait impulsivity

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