Increased functional brain response towards alcohol-associated stimuli is a neural hallmark of alcohol dependence and a promising target for pharmacotherapy. For the first time, we assessed the effects of individually titrated high-dose baclofen on cue reactivity and functional connectivity in alcohol-dependent (AD) patients in a randomized controlled trial (RCT). We investigated 23 recently detoxified AD patients and 23 matched healthy controls (HC) with a cue reactivity functional magnetic resonance imaging task. Patients were further scanned at baseline without medication and during treatment with high-dose baclofen/placebo (30-270 mg/d). Analyses were conducted for alcohol cue-elicited brain response, alcohol cue-modulated and stimulus-independent functional connectivity with left ventral tegmental area (VTA) as seed region. At baseline, AD patients (N = 23) showed increased cue-elicited brain activation in the ventral striatum (VS) compared to HC (N = 23), which was decreased at the second scanning session compared to baseline. Patients receiving baclofen (N = 10) showed a significant stronger decrease in cue-elicited brain activation in left orbitofrontal cortex (OFC), bilateral amygdala and left VTA than patients receiving placebo (N = 13). Treatment with baclofen further led to a decrease in alcohol cue-modulated functional connectivity between left VTA and left anterior cingulate cortex (ACC) as well as left medial prefrontal cortex (MPFC). Regarding clinical outcome, significantly more patients of the baclofen group remained abstinent during the high-dose period. Baclofen specifically decreased cue-elicited brain responses in areas known to be involved in the processing of salient (appetitive and aversive) stimuli. Treatment with high-dose baclofen seems to provide a pharmacological relief of this neural "warning signal" evoked by alcohol-related cues, thereby possibly supporting patients in remaining abstinent. Trial Registration Identifier of the main trial [BACLAD study] at clinicaltrials.gov: NCT01266655.
Keywords: Alcohol dependence; Baclofen; Cue reactivity; fMRI.
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