WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. – A psychiatric research team that studies impulsive behavior has been recruited from the University of Texas to join the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Medicine at Wake Forest University Baptist Medical Center.
W. Vaughn McCall, M.D., M.S., professor and chairman of the department, said the leader of the team, Donald M. Dougherty, Ph.D., would be professor and vice chairman for research.
“The arrival of these investigators represents a commitment of our department to quality research,” McCall said. “While this group will be productive in their own right, I am expecting them to jump-start collaborations among our departmental faculty, and across departments. I could not be more enthusiastic.”
Dougherty has developed several psychological tests to measure impulsive or aggressive behavior and he points out that “studying impulsive behaviors is important because these behaviors are pervasive symptoms of a number of psychiatric disorders.”
As the research team understands more about these behaviors, they hope to develop behavioral treatments as well as to monitor behavior when medication becomes necessary.
In a report in the journal Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research earlier this year, the team reported that adult women who started drinking alcohol before they turned 18 were more impulsive in adulthood than women who waited until they were over 21, the legal drinking age, before taking their first drink.
The impulsivity was quantified by Dougherty’s tests. “The most significant contribution of this study is the initial finding that quantifiable differences in impulsive behavior are distinguishable even among groups of alcohol drinkers who are not experiencing clinically significant problems with alcohol.”
Another project is exploring the relationship between alcohol, the brain chemical serotonin, and impulsivity. In this project, Dougherty and his colleagues can temporarily manipulate the amount of serotonin in the brain while alcohol is consumed, to observe the effects on impulsive behavior. With this model it is possible to test why people react in different ways after drinking alcohol.
Using Dougherty’s tests, the team also is exploring impulsivity in adolescents who have:
• Conduct disorder – aggressive behavior, fighting, lying, stealing, etc. – to see what role impulsive behavior plays. “Impulsivity has been implicated as playing an important role” in these behaviors, Dougherty said. “But the role of impulsivity in the development of this disorder is poorly understood.”
• Both attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and conduct disorder. They will test whether performance on impulsivity tasks can predict which adolescents will respond to treatment with Ritalin, already in routine use for ADHD alone. He said that earlier research had shown that the prognosis is worse for patients who had both disorders than patients with either disorder alone.
• Suicidal tendencies, to see whether the impulsivity tests pick up behaviors that could predict which adolescents might be more likely to attempt suicide. “The development of objective measures sensitive to clinically significant changes in impulsivity that occur over short periods of time will increase our knowledge regarding the underlying behavioral basis of suicide and may have predictive value for risk of suicide,” Dougherty said.
Dougherty's team consists of Dawn M. Marsh, Ph.D., Charles W. Matthias, Ph.D., and Meredith Addicott, B.A., and these members specialize in areas of behavioral, biological, and physiological assessment. This multi-disciplinary line of investigation is used in each of Dougherty's four grants from the National Institutes of Health – two from the National Institute of Mental Health and two from the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism.
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About Wake Forest University Baptist Medical Center: Wake Forest Baptist is an academic health system comprised of North Carolina Baptist Hospital and Wake Forest University Health Sciences, which operates the university’s School of Medicine. The system comprises 1,282 acute care, psychiatric, rehabilitation and long-term care beds and is consistently ranked as one of “America’s Best Hospitals” by U.S. News & World Report.