NEWS | August 11, 2017

Impulsivity in teens, young adults subject of $3.7 million UC Davis grant

Study aims to improve understanding of brain functioning behind impulsive decision-making


Julie Schweitzer, a professor in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences and UC Davis MIND Institute researcher, has received a $3.7 million grant from the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) to track impulsivity and self-control in teens and young adults over time.

Julie Schweitzer Julie Schweitzer

The grant, “Developmental Changes in Neural Processes Underlying Inattention, Impulsivity and Regulation,” represents a 5-year renewal and expansion of a prior NIMH grant that is tracking teens and young adults as their brains develop and behavior and function change in an effort to find more precise interventions to prevent or improve functioning.

“We are looking at how impulsivity changes with development, particularly during adolescence and young adulthood, because that’s the time of life most associated with risk taking and impulsive behavior that can have long-term negative consequences,” said Schweitzer, who directs the MIND Institute’s Attention, Impulsivity and Regulation Program. “These years are also recognized as a period of exploration and opportunity with long-term benefits for some teens.”

Impulsive behavior is associated with substance-use disorders, self-harm or suicide attempts, poor physical health, high accident rates and poor performance in school. The project also will assess how one’s irritability and ability to regulate emotions further impacts functioning. Children with ADHD are especially at risk for poor outcomes due to impulsive decision-making.

The new research project will include about 200 young people who were part of the initial study and an additional 50 participants. The study will include people aged 12 to 30 diagnosed with ADHD and others with elevated impulsivity, as well as those with neither. Each study participant will get a thorough clinical evaluation and two MRI brain scans a couple of years apart, as well as complete a self-assessment. Parents of all participants will complete questionnaires about their child’s functioning as a teenager and young adult, as well.

In addition to impulsivity (such as texting while driving, drug use and risky sexual activity) and ability to exercise self-control, participants will be evaluated on their academic, occupational, executive, emotional and psychiatric functioning.

“We want to identify on a neural and behavioral basis those people who are likely to do well and have resiliency and those who are at risk for worse outcomes so that we can develop interventions specific to their challenges,” Schweitzer said.

For example, researchers will use functional MRI and other techniques including diffusion tensor imaging to identify potential problems with connectivity between brain regions to help inform future research to determine what specific intervention for a certain type of impulsivity might work, such as cognitive therapy, meditation, medication or even neuro-stimulation, to prevent a poor outcome for a specific adolescent or young adult.

In addition to Schweitzer, the research team includes:  Catherine Fassbender, Prerona Mukherjee, Amanda Guyer, J. Faye Dixon, Murat Pakyurek, Jamal Abedii, Ana Maria-Iosif and Pauline Maillard of UC Davis; Wouter van den Bos of the Max Planck Institute; Stephen Hinshaw of UC  Berkeley and UCSF; and Samuel McClure of Arizona State University.

The research is funded by NIMH grant number 2R01MH091068.

At the UC Davis MIND Institute, world-renowned scientists engage in collaborative, interdisciplinary research to find the causes of and develop treatments and cures for autism, attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), fragile X syndrome, 22q11.2 deletion syndrome, Down syndrome and other neurodevelopmental disorders. For more information, visit