Background: Alcoholism is characterized by deficits in emotional functioning as well as by deficits in cognitive functioning. However, most brain imaging research on alcoholism has focused on cognition rather than emotion.
Method: We used an event-related functional magnetic imaging approach to examine alcoholics’ brain blood oxygenation level dependent (BOLD) response to evaluation of emotional stimuli and to compare their response to that of nonalcoholic controls. The task used was a simplified variant of a facial emotion-decoding task in which subjects determined the intensity level of a target emotion displayed as a facial expression. Facial expressions of happy, sad, anger, disgust, and fear were used as stimuli.
Results: Alcoholics and controls did not differ in accurately identifying the intensity level on the simple emotional decoding task but there were significant differences in their BOLD response during evaluation of facial emotion. In general, alcoholics showed less brain activation than nonalcoholic controls. The greatest differences in activation were during decoding of facial expressions of fear and disgust during which alcoholics had significantly less activation than controls in the affective division of the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC). Alcoholics also had significantly less activation than controls in the affective division of the ACC, while viewing sad faces. Only to facial expressions of anger did the alcoholics show significant activation in the affective ACC and in this case, their BOLD response did not significantly differ from that of the controls.
Conclusion: Alcoholics show a deficit in the function of the affective division of the ACC during evaluation of negative facial emotions that can serve as cues for flight or avoidance. This deficit may underlie some of the behavioral dysfunction in alcoholism.