Heavy drinkers show altered functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) response to alcohol cues. Little is known about alcohol cue reactivity among college age drinkers, who show the greatest rates of alcohol use disorders. Family history of alcoholism (family history positive [FHP]) is a risk factor for problematic drinking, but the impact on alcohol cue reactivity is unclear. We investigated the influence of heavy drinking and family history of alcoholism on alcohol cue-related fMRI response among college students.
Participants were 19 family history negative (FHN) light drinkers, 11 FHP light drinkers, 25 FHN heavy drinkers, and 10 FHP heavy drinkers, aged 18 to 21. During fMRI scanning, participants viewed alcohol images, nonalcohol beverage images, and degraded control images, with each beverage image presented twice. We characterized blood oxygen level-dependent (BOLD) contrast for alcohol versus nonalcohol images and examined BOLD response to repeated alcohol images to understand exposure effects.
Heavy drinkers exhibited greater BOLD response than light drinkers in posterior visual association regions, anterior cingulate, medial frontal cortex, hippocampus, amygdala, and dorsal striatum, and hyperactivation to repeated alcohol images in temporo-parietal, frontal, and insular regions (clusters > 8,127 μl, p < 0.05). FHP individuals showed increased activation to repeated alcohol images in temporo-parietal regions, fusiform, and hippocampus. There were no interactions between family history and drinking group.
Our results parallel findings of hyperactivation to alcohol cues among heavy drinkers in regions subserving visual attention, memory, motivation, and habit. Heavy drinkers demonstrated heightened activation to repeated alcohol images, which could influence continued drinking. Family history of alcoholism was associated with greater response to repeated alcohol images in regions underlying visual attention, recognition, and encoding, which could suggest aspects of alcohol cue reactivity that are independent of personal drinking. Heavy drinking and family history of alcoholism may have differential impacts on neural circuitry involved in cue reactivity.