Functional imaging studies have recently demonstrated that specific brain regions become active in cocaine addicts when they are exposed to cocaine stimuli. To test whether there are regional brain activity differences during alcohol cue exposure between alcoholic subjects and social drinkers, we designed a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) protocol involving alcohol-specific cues.
Ten non–treatment-seeking adult alcoholic subjects (2 women) (mean [SD] age, 29.9 [9.9] years) as well as 10 healthy social drinking controls of similar age (2 women) (mean [SD] age, 29.4 [8.9] years) were recruited, screened, and scanned. In the 1.5-T magnetic resonance imaging scanner, subjects were serially rated for alcohol craving before and after a sip of alcohol, and after a 9-minute randomized presentation of pictures of alcoholic beverages, control nonalcoholic beverages, and 2 different visual control tasks. During picture presentation, changes in regional brain activity were measured with the blood oxygen level–dependent technique.
Alcoholic subjects, compared with the social drinking subjects, reported higher overall craving ratings for alcohol. After a sip of alcohol, while viewing alcohol cues compared with viewing other beverage cues, only the alcoholic subjects had increased activity in the left dorsolateral prefrontal cortex and the anterior thalamus. The social drinkers exhibited specific activation only while viewing the control beverage pictures.
When exposed to alcohol cues, alcoholic subjects have increased brain activity in the prefrontal cortex and anterior thalamus—brain regions associated with emotion regulation, attention, and appetitive behavior.