Raising levels of the neurotransmitter dopamine in the frontal cortex of the brain significantly decreased impulsivity in healthy adults, in a study conducted by researchers at the Ernest Gallo Clinic and Research Center at the University of California, San Francisco.
"Impulsivity is a risk factor for addiction to many substances, and it has been suggested that people with lower dopamine levels in the frontal cortex tend to be more impulsive," said lead author Andrew Kayser, PhD, an investigator at Gallo and an assistant professor of neurology at UCSF. "We wanted to see if we could decrease impulsivity by raising dopamine, and it seems as if we can."
The study was published on July 4 in the Journal of Neuroscience.
In a double-blinded, placebo-controlled study, 23 adult research participants were given either tolcapone, a medication approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) that inhibits a dopamine-degrading enzyme, or a placebo. The researchers then gave the participants a task that measured impulsivity, asking them to make a hypothetical choice between receiving a smaller amount of money immediately ("smaller sooner") or a larger amount at a later time ("larger later"). Each participant was tested twice, once with tolcapone and once with placebo.
Participants - especially those who were more impulsive at baseline - were more likely to choose the less impulsive "larger later" option after taking tolcapone than they were after taking the placebo.
Magnetic resonance imaging conducted while the participants were taking the test confirmed that regions of the frontal cortex associated with decision-making were more active in the presence of tolcapone than in the presence of placebo.
"To our knowledge, this is the first study to use tolcapone to look for an effect on impulsivity," said Kayser.