Dysfunctional reward processing in male alcoholics: an ERP study during a gambling task

J Psychiatr Res. 2010 Jul;44(9):576-90. doi: 10.1016/j.jpsychires.2009.11.019. Epub 2009 Dec 24.


Objective: A dysfunctional neural reward system has been shown to be associated with alcoholism. The current study aims to examine reward processing in male alcoholics by using event-related potentials (ERPs) as well as behavioral measures of impulsivity and risk-taking.

Methods: Outcome-related negativity (ORN/N2) and positivity (ORP/P3) derived from a single outcome gambling task were analyzed using a mixed model procedure. Current density was compared across groups and outcomes using standardized low resolution electromagnetic tomography (sLORETA). Behavioral scores were also compared across groups. Correlations of ERP factors with behavioral and impulsivity factors were also analyzed.

Results: Alcoholics showed significantly lower amplitude than controls during all outcome conditions for the ORP component and decreased amplitude during the loss conditions for the ORN component. Within conditions, gain produced higher amplitudes than loss conditions. Topographically, both groups had an anterior focus during loss conditions and posterior maxima during gain conditions, especially for the ORN component. Decreased ORP current density at cingulate gyrus and less negative ORN current density at sensory and motor areas characterized the alcoholics. Alcoholics had higher levels of impulsivity and risk-taking features than controls.

Conclusions: Deficient outcome/reward processing and increased impulsivity and risk-taking observed in alcoholics may be at least partly due to reward deficiency and/or dysfunctional reward circuitry in the brain, suggesting that alcoholism can be considered as part of the cluster of the reward deficiency syndrome (RDS).

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Adult
  • Alcoholism / complications*
  • Alcoholism / pathology
  • Alcoholism / psychology*
  • Analysis of Variance
  • Brain / physiopathology
  • Brain Mapping
  • Electroencephalography / methods
  • Evoked Potentials / physiology*
  • Gambling / psychology*
  • Humans
  • Impulsive Behavior / etiology*
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Psychiatric Status Rating Scales
  • Reward*
  • Young Adult