Conceptualizing impulsivity and risk taking in bipolar disorder: Importance of history of alcohol abuse

M. Kathleen Holmes, Carrie E. Bearden, Marcela Barguil, Manoela Fonseca, E. Serap Monkul, Fabiano G. Nery, Jair C. Soares, Jim Mintz, David C. Glahn

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

98 Scopus citations


Background: Elevated levels of impulsivity and increased risk taking are thought to be core features of both bipolar disorder (BD) and addictive disorders. Given the high rates of comorbid alcohol abuse in BD, alcohol addiction may exacerbate impulsive behavior and risk-taking propensity in BD. Here we examine multiple dimensions of impulsivity and risk taking, using cognitive tasks and self-report measures, in BD patients with and without a history of alcohol abuse. Methods: Thirty-one BD subjects with a prior history of alcohol abuse or dependence (BD-A), 24 BD subjects with no history of alcohol abuse/ dependence (BD-N), and 25 healthy control subjects (HC) were assessed with the Barratt Impulsiveness Scale (BIS) and the computerized Balloon Analogue Risk Task (BART). Results: Both BD groups scored significantly higher than controls on the BIS. In contrast, only the BD-A group showed impaired performance on the BART. BD-A subjects popped significantly more balloons than the BD-N and HC groups. In addition, subjects in the BD-A group failed to adjust their performance after popping balloons. Severity of mood symptomatology was not associated with performance on either task. Discussion: The current study supports a primary role of prior alcohol abuse in risk-taking propensity among patients with bipolar disorder. In addition, findings suggest that impulsivity and risky behavior, as operationalized by self-report and experimental cognitive probes, respectively, are separable constructs that tap distinct aspects of the bipolar phenotype.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)33-40
Number of pages8
JournalBipolar disorders
Issue number1
StatePublished - 2009


  • Alcohol abuse
  • Bipolar disorder
  • Impulsivity
  • Risk taking

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Psychiatry and Mental health
  • Biological Psychiatry


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