Abstract: Background: The mesocorticolimbic dopamine system is implicated in motivation and reward and may be involved in the development of alcoholism.
Methods: We used functional magnetic resonance imaging to study the blood oxygen level–dependent (BOLD) response to alcohol-related olfactory stimuli (AROS; odors of beer and whiskey) and non-alcohol-related olfactory stimuli (NAROS; odors of grass and leather) in 10 high-risk (HR) drinkers (average drinks per week, 19.99; SD, 6.99; all with ≥2 first- or second-degree alcoholic relatives) and 5 low-risk (LR) social drinking controls (drinks per week, 2.82; SD, 2.87; 1 subject had 1 second-degree alcoholic relative). Data were analyzed with SPM99 and random effects analysis by using regions of interest and corrected cluster statistics (p < 0.05) to focus on the nucleus accumbens (NAc) and ventral tegmental area (VTA).
Results: In HR subjects, there was a greater BOLD signal increase in the NAc during AROS than during clean air. BOLD signal increases during AROS were also greater in the NAc than the signal increases induced by NAROS. The AROS signal was significantly greater than the NAROS signal in a small number of voxels in the VTA. Finally, the AROS/NAROS difference signal was larger in HR drinkers in both the NAc and VTA.
Conclusions: Alcoholic olfactory cues may invoke the dopaminergic mesocorticolimbic system to a greater degree than nonalcoholic odors and could be effective tools in exploring the role of the dopamine system in susceptibility to alcoholism.