Associations Between Drinking and Cortical Thickness in Younger Adult Drinkers: Findings From the Human Connectome Project

Alcohol Clin Exp Res. 2019 Sep;43(9):1918-1927. doi: 10.1111/acer.14147. Epub 2019 Jul 31.


Background: Previous neuroimaging studies examining relations between alcohol misuse and cortical thickness have revealed that increased drinking quantity and alcohol-related problems are associated with thinner cortex. Although conflicting regional effects are often observed, associations are generally localized to frontal regions (e.g., dorsolateral prefrontal cortex [DLPFC], inferior frontal gyrus [IFG], and anterior cingulate cortex). Inconsistent findings may be attributed to methodological differences, modest sample sizes, and limited consideration of sex differences.

Methods: This study examined neuroanatomical correlates of drinking quantity and heavy episodic drinking in a large sample of younger adults (N = 706; Mage = 28.8; 51% female) using magnetic resonance imaging data from the Human Connectome Project. Exploratory analyses examined neuroanatomical correlates of executive function (flanker task) and working memory (list sorting).

Results: Hierarchical linear regression models (controlling for age, sex, education, income, smoking, drug use, twin status, and intracranial volume) revealed significant inverse associations between drinks in past week and frequency of heavy drinking and cortical thickness in a majority of regions examined. The largest effect sizes were found for frontal regions (DLPFC, IFG, and the precentral gyrus). Follow-up regression models revealed that the left DLPFC was uniquely associated with both drinking variables. Sex differences were also observed, with significant effects largely specific to men.

Conclusions: This study adds to the understanding of brain correlates of alcohol use in a large, gender-balanced sample of younger adults. Although the cross-sectional methodology precludes causal inferences, these findings provide a foundation for rigorous hypothesis testing in future longitudinal investigations.

Keywords: Alcohol; Cortical Thickness; Dorsolateral Prefrontal Cortex; Heavy Drinking; Human Connectome Project; Neuroanatomy.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Binge Drinking / diagnostic imaging*
  • Central Nervous System Depressants / administration & dosage
  • Central Nervous System Depressants / adverse effects*
  • Cerebral Cortex / diagnostic imaging
  • Cerebral Cortex / drug effects*
  • Connectome
  • Ethanol / administration & dosage
  • Ethanol / adverse effects*
  • Executive Function / drug effects
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Magnetic Resonance Imaging
  • Male
  • Memory, Short-Term / drug effects
  • Sex Characteristics
  • Young Adult


  • Central Nervous System Depressants
  • Ethanol