Background: Alcohol abuse and dependence are common problems in the United States that stem from a variety of factors, one of which may be a period of high level social drinking during college and early adulthood. Extant study implicates risk taking as a cognitive factor that contributes to habitual and heavy drinking. We sought to examine the neural processes of risk taking in young, nondependent drinkers.
Methods: We compared 20 young adult social drinkers with a high level of alcohol use (AH), as defined by number of drinks per month, and 21 demographically matched drinkers with low to moderate alcohol use (ALM) in a functional magnetic resonance imaging study of the stop signal task. By contrasting risk taking (speeded) to risk aversion (slowed) trials, we examined the neural correlates of risk taking. Brain imaging data were analyzed with Statistical Parametric Mapping. Regions of interest were identified and corresponding effect sizes were examined for correlations with self-reported alcohol use.
Results: The results showed that, compared with ALM, AH demonstrated decreased activation in right superior frontal gyrus and left caudate nucleus when contrasting risk taking and risk aversion trials at p < 0.001, uncorrected. Furthermore, examination of the effect size data showed that the extent of these decreased regional activations correlated with frequency of drinking in women, but not men.
Conclusions: These findings suggest a neural analog of nondependent, high level drinking. Specifically, high level social drinking is associated with altered activation of the caudate and superior frontal cortex, an association that appears to be stronger in women than in men and is strongly tied to the frequency of drinking. These results are relevant in understanding risk taking behavior in social drinking as well as in examining the potential path from high level social use in young adults to dangerous alcohol consumption later in life.