Neuroimaging craving: urge intensity matters

Addiction. 2015 Feb;110(2):195-203. doi: 10.1111/add.12676. Epub 2014 Jul 29.


Functional neuroimaging has become an increasingly common tool for studying drug craving. Furthermore, functional neuroimaging studies, which have addressed an incredibly diverse array of questions regarding the nature and treatment of craving, have had a substantial impact on theoretical models of addiction. Here, we offer three points related to this sizeable and influential body of research. First, we assert that the craving most investigators seek to study represents not just a desire but a strong desire to use drugs, consistent with prominent theoretical and clinical descriptions of craving. Secondly, we highlight that, despite the clear conceptual and clinical emphasis on craving as an intense desire, brain imaging studies often have been designed explicitly in a way that reduces the ability to generate powerful cravings. We illustrate this point by reviewing the peak urge levels endorsed by participants in functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) studies of cigarette craving in nicotine-deprived versus non-deprived smokers. Thirdly, we suggest that brain responses measured during mild states of desire (such as following satiety) differ in fundamental ways from those measured during states of overpowering desire (i.e. craving) to use drugs. We support this position by way of a meta-analysis revealing that fMRI cue exposure studies using nicotine-deprived smokers have produced different patterns of brain activation to those using non-deprived smokers. Regarding brain imaging studies of craving, intensity of the urges matter, and more explicit attention to urge intensity in future work has the potential to yield valuable information about the nature of craving.

Keywords: Cigarette; craving; cue-exposure; cue-reactivity; fMRI; neuroscience; smoking.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Brain / drug effects*
  • Brain / physiology
  • Craving / drug effects*
  • Craving / physiology
  • Cues
  • Functional Neuroimaging / methods
  • Gyrus Cinguli / drug effects
  • Gyrus Cinguli / physiology
  • Humans
  • Magnetic Resonance Imaging / methods
  • Prefrontal Cortex / drug effects
  • Prefrontal Cortex / physiology
  • Smoking / physiopathology
  • Smoking / psychology
  • Substance-Related Disorders / physiopathology
  • Substance-Related Disorders / psychology*
  • Tobacco Use Disorder / physiopathology
  • Tobacco Use Disorder / psychology