Attenuated neural response to emotional cues in cocaine-dependence: a preliminary analysis of gender differences

Am J Drug Alcohol Abuse. 2016 Sep;42(5):577-586. doi: 10.1080/00952990.2016.1192183. Epub 2016 Jul 21.


Background: Cocaine users often report a loss of arousal for nondrug-related stimuli, which may contribute to their response to drug-related rewards. However, little is known about users' neural reactivity to emotional nondrug-related stimuli and the potential influence of gender.

Objectives: Test the hypotheses that cocaine-dependent individuals have an attenuated neural response to arousing stimuli relative to controls and that this difference is amplified in women.

Methods: The brain response to typically arousing positive and negative images as well as neutral images from the International Affective Picture System was measured in 40 individuals (20 non-treatment seeking cocaine-dependent and 20 age- and gender-matched control participants; 50% of whom were women). Images were displayed for 4 s each in blocks of five across two 270-second runs. General linear models assessed within and between group activation differences for the emotional images.

Results: Cocaine-dependent individuals had a significantly lower response to typically arousing positive and negative images than controls, with attenuated neural activity present in the medial prefrontal cortex (mPFC) and anterior cingulate cortex (ACC). Analyses by gender revealed less mPFC/ACC activation among female users, but not males, for both positive and negative images.

Conclusion: The dampened neural response to typically arousing stimuli among cocaine-dependent polydrug users suggests decreased salience processing for nondrug stimuli, particularly among female users. This decreased responding is consistent with data from other substance using populations and suggests that this may be a general feature of addiction. Amplifying the neural response to naturally arousing nondrug-related reinforcers may present an opportunity for unique behavioral and brain stimulation therapies.

Keywords: Cocaine; addiction; emotion; fMRI; gender.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Case-Control Studies
  • Cocaine-Related Disorders / physiopathology*
  • Cocaine-Related Disorders / psychology*
  • Emotions / physiology*
  • Female
  • Functional Neuroimaging
  • Gyrus Cinguli / physiopathology*
  • Humans
  • Magnetic Resonance Imaging
  • Male
  • Photic Stimulation
  • Prefrontal Cortex / physiopathology*
  • Sex Characteristics*
  • Young Adult