Differential brain activity in alcoholics and social drinkers to alcohol cues: relationship to craving

Neuropsychopharmacology. 2004 Feb;29(2):393-402. doi: 10.1038/sj.npp.1300295.


Using fMRI, our group previously found that after a sip of alcohol and exposure to alcohol beverage pictures, alcoholics compared to social drinkers had increased differential brain activity in the prefrontal cortex and anterior thalamus. This study extends this earlier work with several improvements including imaging the entire brain (rather than the anterior half previously) and recording craving, while the subjects viewed images within the scanner. In a Philips 1.5 T MRI scanner, 10 nontreatment-seeking alcoholics and 10 age-matched healthy social drinkers were given a sip of alcohol before viewing a 12 min randomized presentation of pictures of alcoholic beverages, nonalcoholic beverages, and two different visual control tasks. During picture presentation, changes in regional brain activity were measured in 15 transverse T2(*)-weighted blood oxygen level dependent slices. Subjects rated their urge to drink after each picture sequence. After a sip of alcohol, while viewing alcohol cues compared to viewing other beverage cues, the alcoholics, but not social drinkers, reported higher craving ratings and had increased activity in the prefrontal cortex and anterior limbic regions. Brain activity in the left nucleus accumbens, anterior cingulate, and left orbitofrontal cortex significantly correlated with subjective craving ratings in alcohol subjects but not in control subjects. This study suggests, as did our earlier study, that alcoholics and not social drinkers, when exposed to alcohol cues, have increased brain activity in areas that reportedly subserve craving for other addictive substances.

Publication types

  • Clinical Trial
  • Comparative Study
  • Randomized Controlled Trial
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Alcohol Drinking* / physiopathology
  • Alcohol Drinking* / psychology
  • Alcoholic Beverages
  • Alcoholism* / physiopathology
  • Alcoholism* / psychology
  • Analysis of Variance
  • Beverages
  • Brain / physiopathology*
  • Brain Mapping
  • Case-Control Studies
  • Cues*
  • Demography
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Magnetic Resonance Imaging / methods
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Motivation*
  • Photic Stimulation
  • Rest
  • Social Behavior*
  • Time Factors