Objective: Stress is known to increase cocaine craving and relapse risk in cocaine dependence. Identifying neural activity associated with stress and stress-induced cocaine craving is important in understanding the neurobiology of cocaine craving and relapse.
Method: Blood oxygenation level dependent (BOLD) signal changes were assessed in a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) session with healthy controls and treatment-engaged, abstinent, cocaine-dependent individuals (patients) as they participated in brief guided imagery and recall of three personal stress and three personal neutral situations.
Results: During stress, patients showed significantly less BOLD activation than controls in specific frontal and para-limbic regions, such as the anterior cingulate (AC) region, left hippocampal/parahippocampal region, right fusiform gyrus, and the right postcentral gyrus. On the other hand, patients had increased activity in the caudate and dorsal striatum region during stress, activation that was significantly associated with stress-induced cocaine craving ratings.
Conclusions: Patients failed to activate AC and related circuits during stress, regions associated with control, and regulation of emotion and distress states. Instead, they exhibited greater craving-related activation in the dorsal striatum, a region related to reward pathways and part of the obsessive-compulsive circuitry. Such functional alterations in stress processing may underlie the stress-related vulnerability to cocaine relapse often observed in cocaine-dependent individuals in early recovery.