Decreased reward-related brain function prospectively predicts increased substance use

J Abnorm Psychol. 2021 Nov;130(8):886-898. doi: 10.1037/abn0000711.


Substance use and addiction are prominent global health concerns and are associated with abnormalities in reward sensitivity. Reward sensitivity and approach motivation are supported by a fronto-striatal neural circuit including the orbitofrontal cortex (OFC), ventral striatum (VS), and dorsal striatum (DS). Although research highlights abnormalities in reward neural circuitry among individuals with problematic substance use, questions remain about whether such use arises from excessively high, or excessively low, reward sensitivity. This study examined whether reward-related brain function predicted subsequent substance use course. Participants were 79 right-handed individuals (Mage = 21.52, SD = 2.19 years), who completed a monetary incentive delay (MID) fMRI task, and follow-up measures assessing substance use frequency and impairment. The average duration of the follow-up period was 9.1 months. Regions-of-interest analyses focused on the reward anticipation phase of the MID. Decreased activation in the VS during reward anticipation predicted increased substance use frequency at follow-up. Decreased DS activation during reward anticipation predicted increased substance use frequency at follow-up, but this finding did not pass correction for multiple comparisons. Analyses adjusted for relevant covariates, including baseline substance use and the presence or absence of a lifetime substance use disorder prior to MRI scanning. Results support the reward hyposensitivity theory, suggesting that decreased reward-related brain function is a risk factor for increased substance use. Results have implications for understanding the pathophysiology of problematic substance use and highlight the importance of the fronto-striatal reward circuit in the development and maintenance of addiction. (PsycInfo Database Record (c) 2021 APA, all rights reserved).

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Anticipation, Psychological
  • Brain / diagnostic imaging
  • Brain Mapping
  • Humans
  • Magnetic Resonance Imaging
  • Motivation
  • Reward
  • Substance-Related Disorders*
  • Ventral Striatum*
  • Young Adult