N400 as an index of semantic expectancies: differential effects of alcohol and cocaine dependence

Prog Neuropsychopharmacol Biol Psychiatry. 2005 Jul;29(6):936-43. doi: 10.1016/j.pnpbp.2005.04.036.


Background: Chronic substance abuse has been associated with decrements in the processing and expression of language. The present study utilized the N400 event-related electroencephalographic potential to index semantic processing in 133 adults with (n=49) or without (n=84) a history of alcohol and/or cocaine dependence. The contributions of age, gender, and comorbid marijuana and nicotine dependence, and antisocial symptomology to N400 decrements were either covaried or controlled.

Methods: A continuous series of 300 stimuli was presented for 150 ms each (interstimulus interval=1475 ms) on a computer screen. The series was arranged such that a word (approximately 17% of stimuli) immediately preceded presentations of its antonym (primed condition; approximately 17% of stimuli), or a semantically unrelated word (unprimed condition; approximately 17% of stimuli). The remaining 50% of stimuli consisted of unpronounceable letter combinations (non-word condition). EEG responses to the antonyms, unrelated words, and letter jumbles were retained for analysis. Throughout the task, the subject pressed response keys to discriminate words from non-words.

Results: Analyses revealed a detrimental effect of alcohol dependence on N400 amplitude and no significant main or interactive effects of cocaine dependence.

Conclusion: The present findings suggest that alcohol-dependent individuals may exhibit verbal processing decrements. These findings also challenge hypotheses suggesting that the combined use of cocaine and alcohol is more deleterious to brain function than alcohol use alone.

Publication types

  • Comparative Study
  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Adult
  • Alcoholism / physiopathology*
  • Analysis of Variance
  • Cocaine-Related Disorders / physiopathology*
  • Electroencephalography / methods
  • Evoked Potentials / physiology*
  • Female
  • Functional Laterality
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Reaction Time
  • Semantics*