Neural Correlates of Stress-Induced and Cue-Induced Drug Craving: Influences of Sex and Cocaine Dependence

Am J Psychiatry. 2012 Apr;169(4):406-14. doi: 10.1176/appi.ajp.2011.11020289.


Objective: Although stress and drug cue exposure each increase drug craving and contribute to relapse in cocaine dependence, no previous research has directly examined the neural correlates of stress-induced and drug cue-induced craving in cocaine-dependent women and men relative to comparison subjects.

Method: Functional MRI was used to assess responses to individualized scripts for stress, drug/alcohol cue and neutral-relaxing-imagery conditions in 30 abstinent cocaine-dependent individuals (16 women, 14 men) and 36 healthy recreational-drinking comparison subjects (18 women, 18 men).

Results: Significant three-way interactions between diagnostic group, sex, and script condition were observed in multiple brain regions including the striatum, insula, and anterior and posterior cingulate. Within women, group-by-condition interactions were observed involving these regions and were attributable to relatively increased regional activations in cocaine-dependent women during the stress and, to a lesser extent, neutral-relaxing conditions. Within men, group main effects were observed involving these same regions, with cocaine-dependent men demonstrating relatively increased activation across conditions, with the main contributions from the drug and neutral-relaxing conditions. In men and women, subjective drug-induced craving measures correlated positively with corticostriatal-limbic activations.

Conclusions: In cocaine dependence, corticostriatal-limbic hyperactivity appears to be linked to stress cues in women, drug cues in men, and neutral-relaxing conditions in both. These findings suggest that sex should be taken into account in the selection of therapies in the treatment of addiction, particularly those targeting stress reduction.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Anxiety / physiopathology
  • Anxiety / psychology
  • Behavior, Addictive / physiopathology*
  • Behavior, Addictive / psychology*
  • Brain / physiopathology*
  • Cocaine-Related Disorders / physiopathology*
  • Cocaine-Related Disorders / psychology*
  • Cues
  • Female
  • Functional Neuroimaging / methods
  • Functional Neuroimaging / psychology
  • Heart Rate / physiology
  • Humans
  • Magnetic Resonance Imaging / methods
  • Magnetic Resonance Imaging / psychology
  • Male
  • Neural Pathways / physiopathology
  • Relaxation / physiology
  • Relaxation / psychology
  • Sex Characteristics
  • Stress, Psychological / physiopathology*
  • Stress, Psychological / psychology