The Neurobiology of Impulsive Decision-Making and Reinforcement Learning in Nonhuman Animals

Part of the Current Topics in Behavioral Neurosciences book series (CTBN, volume 47)


Impulsive decisions are those that favor immediate over delayed rewards, involve the acceptance of undue risk or uncertainty, or fail to adapt to environmental changes. Pathological levels of impulsive decision-making have been observed in individuals with mental illness, but there may be substantial heterogeneity in the processes that drive impulsive choices. Understanding this behavioral heterogeneity may be critical for understanding associated diverseness in the neural mechanisms that give rise to impulsivity. The application of reinforcement learning algorithms in the deconstruction of impulsive decision-making phenotypes can help bridge the gap between biology and behavior and provide insights into the biobehavioral heterogeneity of impulsive choice. This chapter will review the literature on the neurobiological mechanisms of impulsive decision-making in nonhuman animals; specifically, the role of the amine neuromodulatory systems (dopamine, serotonin, norepinephrine, and acetylcholine) in impulsive decision-making and reinforcement learning processes is discussed. Ultimately, the integration of reinforcement learning algorithms with sophisticated behavioral and neuroscience techniques may be critical for advancing the understanding of the neurochemical basis of impulsive decision-making.


Acetylcholine Decision making Dopamine Impulsivity Norepinephrine Reinforcement learning Serotonin  



This work was supported by National Institutes of Health grants R21 MH120615, R21 MH120799, R01 DA041480, and R01 DA043443 and a Young Investigator Award from the Brain & Behavior Research Foundation.

The author thanks Alexander J. Keip and Neema Moin Afshar for their insightful comments and critiques of the manuscript.


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Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of PsychiatryYale UniversityNew HavenUSA

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