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Even mild brain injury can cause problems with impulsive decisions

Did you notice that some people are really impulsive and take risks easily without much thought? It turns out, it is very easy to become that kind of person – you just need to injure your head. Jokes aside, scientists from the University of British Columbia confirmed for the first time that even mild brain injury causes impulse control problems in rats.

Impulse control problems can easily lead to developing addictions or simply making bad decisions. Image credit: Fidelio García via Wikimedia

You may think that being impulsive is being more enthusiastic about everything. But for many people it is actually a problem as they struggle to control these impulses. Scientists now say that it may be because of a brain injury. Or, in other words, levels of an inflammatory molecule in the brain. In the future targeting these molecules could help reduce the impulse control problems. Interestingly, there were only a few studies that looked into the possible causes for the impulse control problems.

Thing is that people who injure their brain are sometimes risk takers even before the injury (that is how they get injured), so it is not easy to research. Now scientists used rat models to see if there is a link. They gave rats with brain injuries a choice of rewards: smaller, but sooner, and bigger, but with a little bit longer waiting time. Rats that went for a quick reward were considered more impulsive. Scientists found that rats with brain injuries were more impulsive, even if the injury itself was very mild. Furthermore, impulsivity was still there weeks after the injury, even when all motor function and memory has returned.

Higher levels of an inflammatory molecule, known as interleukin-12, were found in the frontal cortex brain tissue and that is what is causing impulsivity. There have been other studies before that linked interleukin-12 to impulsive behaviour, which can even lead to developing addiction to harmful substances. Catharine Winstanley, the study’s senior author, said: “Addiction can be a big problem for patients with traumatic brain injuries. If we can target levels of interleukin-12, however, that could potentially provide a new treatment target to address impulsivity in these patients”.

Impulsive behaviour can be fun, when people chose to treat themselves or go on a journey they always dreamed about. But it can also be very dangerous or even lead to addictions. Scientists have methods to combat inflammatory molecules, so hopefully they will quickly find ways to help people suffering from impulse control problems.

Source: University of British Columbia

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