The neurobiology of alcohol craving and relapse

Handb Clin Neurol. 2014;125:355-68. doi: 10.1016/B978-0-444-62619-6.00021-5.


A major block to recovery from alcoholism is substantial alcohol craving and the chronic relapsing nature of the illness. This chapter reviews relevant structural and functional neuroimaging studies and discusses neural mechanisms underlying alcohol craving and relapse in the context of influential risk factors (i.e., alcohol, alcohol cue, and stress). Review of neuroimaging studies suggests that neuroadaptations in the cortico-striatal-limbic circuit encompassing the medial prefrontal cortex, orbitofrontal cortex, anterior cingulate cortex, striatum, and amygdala significantly contribute to overwhelming alcohol craving and early relapse after a period of abstinence. The cortico-striatal-limbic circuit plays an important role in the modulation of emotion, reward, and decision making. As functional and structural chronic alcohol-related neuroadaptations are consistently reported in this circuit, it is likely that sensitization of this circuit from continued alcohol abuse may contribute to high alcohol craving and early relapse via impairments in the prefrontal executive function related to emotion regulation and decision making. This vulnerable neurobiologic state may be manifested as compulsive craving and intense urge to resume alcohol drinking in the face of environmental risk factors, including alcohol, alcohol cue, or stressful live events.

Keywords: alcohol craving; amygdala; decision making; emotion regulation; prefrontal cortex; relapse; ventral striatum.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Alcohol Drinking / metabolism
  • Alcohol Drinking / pathology
  • Alcoholism / diagnosis*
  • Alcoholism / epidemiology
  • Alcoholism / metabolism*
  • Animals
  • Corpus Striatum / metabolism
  • Corpus Striatum / pathology
  • Craving / physiology*
  • Cues
  • Functional Neuroimaging / methods
  • Humans
  • Prefrontal Cortex / metabolism
  • Prefrontal Cortex / pathology
  • Recurrence
  • Stress, Psychological / diagnosis*
  • Stress, Psychological / epidemiology
  • Stress, Psychological / metabolism*