Cue reactivity studies in alcohol-dependent adults have shown atypical physiological, cognitive, and neural responses to alcohol-related stimuli that differ from the responses of light drinkers. Cue reactivity and its neural substrates are unclear in youth. We hypothesized that teens with alcohol use disorder would show greater brain response than nonabusing teens to alcohol images relative to neutral beverage images in limbic and frontal brain regions.
We tested the hypotheses in a cross-sectional functional magnetic resonance imaging study. Adolescents aged 14 to 17 were recruited from local high schools. Teens with alcohol use disorders (n = 15) and demographically similar infrequent drinkers (n = 15) met strict exclusion criteria (no left-handedness or neurological, other psychiatric, or other substance use disorders). Diagnoses were determined by means of structured and semistructured clinical interviews. Subjects were shown pictures of alcoholic and nonalcoholic beverage advertisements during blood oxygen level–dependent functional magnetic resonance imaging. Self-reports of craving were obtained before and after cue exposure.
Teens with alcohol use disorders showed substantially greater brain activation to alcoholic beverage pictures than control youths, predominantly in the left anterior, limbic, and visual system areas (P<.05; cluster threshold, 515 µL). The degree of brain response to the alcohol pictures was highest in youths who consumed more drinks per month and reported greater desires to drink.
These results confirm previous studies by demonstrating an association between the urge to drink alcohol and blood oxygen use in areas of the brain previously linked to reward, desire, positive affect, and episodic recall. This study extends this relationship to adolescents with relatively brief drinking histories using visual alcohol stimuli, and suggests a neural basis for response to alcohol advertisements in youths with drinking problems.