With the progression of substance dependence, drug cue-related brain activation is thought to shift from motivational towards habit pathways. However, a direct association between cue-induced brain activation and dependence duration has not yet been shown. We therefore examined the relationship between alcohol cue-reactivity in the brain, cue-induced subjective craving and alcohol dependence duration and severity. Since alcohol dependence is highly comorbid with depression/anxiety, which may modulate brain responses to alcohol cues, we also examined the relation between comorbid depression/anxiety and cue-reactivity.
We compared 30 alcohol dependent patients with 15 healthy controls and 15 depression/anxiety patients during a visual alcohol cue-reactivity task using functional magnetic resonance imaging blood oxygenated level-dependent responses and subjective craving as outcomes. Within the alcohol dependent group we correlated cue-reactivity with alcohol dependence severity and duration, with cue-induced craving and with depression/anxiety levels.
Alcohol dependent patients showed greater cue-reactivity in motivational brain pathways and stronger subjective craving than depression/anxiety patients and healthy controls. Depression/anxiety was not associated with cue-reactivity, but depression severity in alcohol dependent patients was positively associated with craving. Within alcohol dependence, longer duration of alcohol dependence was associated with stronger cue-related activation of the posterior putamen, a structure involved in habits, whereas higher alcohol dependence severity was associated with lower cue-reactivity in the anterior putamen, an area implicated in goal-directed behavior preceding habit formation.
Cue-reactivity in alcohol dependence is not modulated by comorbid depression or anxiety. More importantly, the current data confirm the hypothesis of a ventral to dorsal striatal shift of learning processes with longer dependence duration, which could underlie increasingly habitual substance use with progressing substance dependence.