Prenatal cocaine exposure (PCE) is associated with arousal dysregulation, and alterations of amygdala activity in response to emotional arousal have previously been reported. However, voluntary regulation of emotional affect, enabling appropriate neural response to different streams of stimuli, must also engage prefrontal regions, yet the impact of PCE on these prefrontal mechanisms has not been investigated. Recent neuroimaging studies have shown the involvement of ventral prefrontal cortex (vPFC) in the modulation of amygdala reactivity and the mediation of effective emotional regulation. Based on these findings, using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) and diffusion tensor imaging (DTI), the present study compared functional activations of the vPFC as well as its structural connectivity with the amygdala between groups of PCE and control adolescents. In a working memory task with emotional distracters, the PCE adolescents exhibited less capability of increasing their vPFC activation in response to increased memory load, which corresponded with their less suppressed amygdala activation. Reduced structural connectivity between the vPFC and the amygdala was also observed from DTI measurement in the PCE group. In addition, correlations between amygdala activation and (i) vPFC activation, as well as (ii) amygdala-vPFC structural connectivity, were observed in the control but not in the PCE group. These data complement previous findings of the impact of PCE on the activity of the amygdala and extend our understanding of the neurobiological mechanisms underlying the effect of PCE on arousal dysregulation reported in human and animal studies.
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