Aims During the development of drug addiction, initial hedonic effects decrease when substance use becomes habitual and ultimately compulsive. Animal research suggests that these changes are represented by a transition from prefrontal cortical control to subcortical striatal control and within the striatum from ventral to dorsal domains of the striatum, but only limited evidence exists in humans. In this study we address this hypothesis in the context of alcohol dependence.
Design, setting and participants Non-abstinent heavy social drinkers (n = 21, 5.0 ± 1.5 drinks/day, 13 of them were alcohol-dependent according to DSM-IV) and light social drinkers (n = 10, 0.4 ± 0.4 drinks/day) were examined.
Measurements We used a cue-reactivity functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) design during which pictures of alcoholic beverages and neutral control stimuli were presented.
Findings In the dorsal striatum heavy drinkers showed significant higher activations compared to light drinkers, whereas light social drinkers showed higher cue-induced fMRI activations in the ventral striatum and in prefrontal areas compared to heavy social drinkers [region of interest analyses, P < 0.05 false discovery rate (FDR)-corrected]. Correspondingly, ventral striatal activation in heavy drinkers correlated negatively with obsessive-compulsive craving, and furthermore we found a positive association between cue-induced activation in the dorsal striatum and obsessive-compulsive craving in all participants.
Conclusions In line with our hypothesis we found higher cue-induced activation of the ventral striatum in social compared to heavy drinkers, and higher dorsal striatal activation in heavy drinkers. Increased prefrontal activation may indicate that social drinkers activate cortical control when viewing alcohol cues, which may prevent the development of heavy drinking or alcohol dependence. Our results suggest differentiating treatment research depending on whether alcohol use is hedonic or compulsive.