Joshua Buckholtz, Ph.D.

Instructor in Investigation
Psychiatry, Mass General Research Institute
aggression; brain imaging; brain stimulation; drug addiction; genetics; neuroscience; personality disorders; psychopathy; self-control

Joshua Buckholtz is an experimental psychologist and neuroscientist who uses behavioral, genetic, brain imaging, and brain stimulation methods to understand why humans vary so dramatically in their capacity for self-control. His work is focused on characterizing the cognitive architecture of self-control, identifying distinct brain circuits supporting different kinds of self-control, and understanding how dysfunction in these circuits leads to impulsive decision-making in drug addiction, aggression, psychopathy, and personality disorders.

Dr. Buckholtz is a Network Scholar for the MacArthur Foundation’s Research Network on Law and Neuroscience and serves on the faculty of the Center for Law, Brain and Behavior at Massachusetts General Hospital. His is grateful for research support from the National Institute on Drug Abuse, the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, the Brain and Behavior Research Foundation, and the MGH-CLBB.

People vary widely in their capacity to deliberate on the potential adverse consequences of their choices before they act. Impulsivity (the inability to exert self-control) is a core symptom that contributes to dysfunction and impairment across the entire spectrum of mental illness. It is a cardinal feature of antisocial behavior, psychopathy and substance abuse, which together account for more than $1 trillion annually in costs related to treatment, incarceration, and lost productivity.

Unfortunately, impulsive symptoms are notoriously difficult to treat and there exist few effective therapeutic options. One major roadblock to treatment development is our limited understanding of the neurobiology of impulsive decision-making. Our work is focused on identifying brain circuits that are involved in self-control in order to understand the systems-level neurobiological mechanisms that lead to individual variability in impulsivity.

Our primary tools in this endeavor are brain imaging techniques - in particular,  molecular imaging with PET and MRI-based functional, structural, and connectivity imaging - which we combine with personality and behavioral assessment.

Additionally, we use brain stimulation approaches such as transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) and transcranial direct current stimulation (tDCS) to manipulate nodes within distributed brain circuits for self-control; the effects of these manipulations on the larger-scale circuits are read out using PET and fMRI.;