Rationale: Animal experiments have provided evidence that the striatum and medial prefrontal cortex play a predominant role in the acquisition and maintenance of drug-seeking behavior.
Objectives: Alcohol-associated stimuli that were regularly paired with alcohol intake may become conditioned cues and elicit a motivational response that triggers relapse in alcohol-dependent patients.
Methods: We used functional magnetic resonance imaging and visual alcohol-associated and control cues to assess brain activation in ten abstinent alcoholics and control subjects. Patients were followed for 3 months, and alcohol intake was recorded.
Results: Alcohol-related versus neutral visual stimuli activated the putamen, anterior cingulate and adjacent medial prefrontal cortex in alcoholics compared with healthy controls. Cue-induced activation of these brain areas was pronounced in the five alcoholics who subsequently relapsed during the observation period. A multiple regression analysis showed that, in alcoholics, the amount of subsequent alcohol intake was associated with the intensity of cue-induced brain activation but not the severity of alcohol craving, amount of previous alcohol intake or duration of abstinence before scanning.
Conclusions: This pilot study showed that cue-induced activation of the anterior cingulate, medial prefrontal cortex and striatum may play a role in the attribution of incentive salience to alcohol-associated stimuli, thus increasing the motivational value and attentional processing of alcohol cues. Functional brain imaging may help to identify a group of alcoholics with an otherwise undetected high risk of relapse.