Dependence on drugs and alcohol is associated with impaired impulse control, but deficits are rarely compared across individuals dependent on different substances using several measures within a single study.
We investigated impulsivity in abstinent substance-dependent individuals (AbD) using three complementary techniques: self-report, neuropsychological and neuroimaging. We hypothesised that AbDs would show increased impulsivity across modalities, and that this would depend on length of abstinence.
Data were collected from the ICCAM study: 57 control and 86 AbDs, comprising a group with a history of dependence on alcohol only (n = 27) and a group with history of dependence on multiple substances (“polydrug”, n = 59). All participants completed self-report measures of impulsivity: Barratt Impulsiveness Scale, UPPS Impulsive Behaviour Scale, Behaviour Inhibition/Activation System and Obsessive-Compulsive Inventory. They also performed three behavioural tasks: Stop Signal, Intra-Extra Dimensional Set-Shift and Kirby Delay Discounting; and completed a Go/NoGo task during fMRI.
AbDs scored significantly higher than controls on self-report measures, but alcohol and polydrug dependent groups did not differ significantly from each other. Polydrug participants had significantly higher discounting scores than both controls and alcohol participants. There were no group differences on the other behavioural measures or on the fMRI measure.
The results suggest that the current set of self-report measures of impulsivity is more sensitive in abstinent individuals than the behavioural or fMRI measures of neuronal activity. This highlights the importance of developing behavioural measures to assess different, more relevant, aspects of impulsivity alongside corresponding cognitive challenges for fMRI.