Differences in decision-making as a function of drug of choice

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Abstract

Poor decision-making is a central feature of all substance use disorders (SUD), but substances vary in the legal and health consequences associated with their use. For example, while the negative health consequences associated with cigarette smoking are often years away, the consequences of heroin abuse can be fatal in mere hours. It remains unclear if users of these substances show decision-making patterns that differ with the relative riskiness of their drug of choice. To address this question, we reviewed studies that compared decision-making of individuals using different substances. We focused on studies assessing two of the most commonly investigated decision-making processes—delay discounting and risk taking—and specifically focused on decision-making that involved selection between options for hypothetical monetary rewards. For delay discounting, we reviewed studies that assessed decisions regarding delayed or immediate monetary rewards, and for risk-taking we reviewed studies using the Iowa Gambling Task. Studies directly comparing different SUD groups were limited in number and tended to compare alcohol or cocaine users to other substance users. Overall, these studies do not support the hypothesis that decision-making differed by drug of choice. Major limitations in the literature include failing to account for comorbid substance use and a lack of prospective longitudinal studies. Due to these limitations, conclusions should be considered provisional. Nonetheless, current findings suggest that these two facets of decision-making are similar across drugs of abuse.

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