The Genetics of Impulsivity: Evidence for the Heritability of Delay Discounting

Published:November 06, 2014DOI:



      Delay discounting (DD), a decline in the subjective value of reward with increasing delay until its receipt, is an established behavioral model of impulsive choice, a key component of a broader impulsivity construct. Greater DD, i.e., a tendency to choose smaller immediate over larger delayed rewards, has been implicated as a potential intermediate phenotype (endophenotype) for addictive disorders and comorbid externalizing psychopathology, particularly in adolescence. However, genetic and environmental origins of DD remain unclear. Accordingly, the goal of the present study was to assess heritability of DD, an important aspect of its utility as an endophenotype.


      A commonly used computerized procedure involving choice between varying amounts of money available immediately and a standard amount of $100 presented at variable delays was administered to a population-based sample of twins aged 16 and 18 (n = 560, including 134 monozygotic and 142 dizygotic pairs). DD was quantified using area under the discounting curve and the k coefficient estimated by fitting a hyperbolic model to individual data. Heritability was assessed using linear structural equation modeling of twin data.


      The genetic analysis revealed significant heritability of both DD measures (area under the discounting curve: 46% and 62%; k: 35% and 55% at age 16 and 18, respectively).


      The present study provides evidence for heritability of both model-based and model-free DD measures and suggests that DD is a promising intermediate phenotype for genetic dissection of impulsivity and externalizing spectrum disorders.


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      Linked Article

      • Discounting of Delayed Rewards as an Endophenotype
        Biological PsychiatryVol. 77Issue 10
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          The article by Anokhin et al. (1) in this issue of Biological Psychiatry provides strong evidence of the heritability of the neurobehavioral decision process referred to as the discounting of delayed rewards, or temporal discounting (i.e., the devaluation of a reward as a function of delay to its delivery) (2). Using a standard psychophysical titration procedure to assess discounting, Anokhin et al. tested twins (N = 560) at both 16 years of age and 18 years of age. Use of more than one time point allows estimates of the stability and strength of genetic influence over time.
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