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Sex differences in neural responses to stress and alcohol context cues

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Abstract

Stress and alcohol context cues are each associated with alcohol-related behaviors, yet neural responses underlying these processes remain unclear. This study investigated the neural correlates of stress and alcohol context cue experiences and examined sex differences in these responses. Using functional magnetic resonance imaging, brain responses were examined while 43 right-handed, socially drinking, healthy individuals (23 females) engaged in brief guided imagery of personalized stress, alcohol-cue, and neutral-relaxing scenarios. Stress and alcohol-cue exposure increased activity in the cortico–limbic–striatal circuit (P < 0.01, corrected), encompassing the medial prefrontal cortex (mPFC), orbitofrontal cortex (OFC), anterior cingulate cortex (ACC), left anterior insula, striatum, and visuomotor regions (parietal and occipital lobe, and cerebellum). Activity in the left dorsal striatum increased during stress, while bilateral ventral striatum activity was evident during alcohol-cue exposure. Men displayed greater stress-related activations in the mPFC, rostral ACC, posterior insula, amygdala, and hippocampus than women, whereas women showed greater alcohol-cue-related activity in the superior and middle frontal gyrus (SFG/MFG) than men. Stress-induced anxiety was positively associated with activity in emotion-modulation regions, including the medial OFC, ventromedial PFC, left superior-mPFC, and rostral ACC in men, but in women with activation in the SFG/MFG, regions involved in cognitive processing. Alcohol craving was significantly associated with the striatum (encompassing dorsal, and ventral) in men, supporting its involvement in alcohol “urge” in healthy men. These results indicate sex differences in neural processing of stress and alcohol-cue experiences and have implications for sex-specific vulnerabilities to stress- and alcohol-related psychiatric disorders. Hum Brain Mapp, 2011. © 2010 Wiley-Liss, Inc.

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