fMRI Measurement of Brain Dysfunction in Alcohol-Dependent Young Women


  • Portions of this research were presented at the Research Society on Alcoholism 23rd Annual Scientific Meeting, June 2000, Denver, Colorado.

  • This research was supported by Grant AA09033 and a supplement from NIAAA (SAB); grant R21 AA12519 from NIAAA (SFT); a Mental Illness, Research, Education, and Clinical Center grant to the Veterans Affairs Desert Pacific Healthcare System; and by Veterans Affairs Merit Review SA321 (LRF). Preparation of this manuscript was supported in part by Grant MH18399 (Fellowship: Clinical Psychopharmacology & Psychobiology) from the National Institute of Mental Health (SFT).

Reprint requests: Susan F. Tapert, PhD, VA San Diego Healthcare System, Psychology Service (116B), San Diego, CA 92161; Fax: 858-552-7414; E-mail:


Background: Studies of brain functioning in alcohol-dependent adults have produced varied results but generally suggest that alcohol affects brain functioning and that relatively short durations of heavy drinking may adversely affect women. It remains unclear when in the course of alcohol dependency and at which developmental stage these brain changes emerge. Our neuropsychological studies have indicated that drinking-related neurocognitive effects occur as early as adolescence (Brown et al., 2000; Tapert & Brown, 1999). This study seeks to characterize brain regions that subserve the affected neurocognitive functions.

Methods: Alcohol-dependent young women (n= 10) were recruited from a longitudinal study of alcohol- and drug-abusing youth, all of whom met criteria for alcohol dependence. Control participants (n= 10) had no history of alcohol or drug problems and were comparable with alcohol-dependent participants on age (18–25 years), family history of alcohol use disorders, and education. After a minimum of 72 hr of abstinence, functional magnetic resonance imaging, neuropsychological, alcohol/drug involvement, and mood data were collected. Participants performed spatial working memory and vigilance tasks during functional magnetic resonance imaging acquisition to probe brain response.

Results: Alcohol-dependent women demonstrated significantly less blood oxygen level-dependent response than controls during the spatial working memory task in the right superior and inferior parietal, right middle frontal, right postcentral, and left superior frontal cortex, after controlling for the baseline vigilance response.

Conclusions: Working memory produces a larger neuronal response in some cortical regions than vigilance. Alcohol-dependent women showed less differential response to working memory than controls in frontal and parietal regions, especially in the right hemisphere. Heavy, chronic drinking appears to produce adverse neural effects that are detectable by functional magnetic resonance imaging.