BACKGROUND: While the automatic processing of alcohol-related cues by alcohol abusers is well established in experimental psychopathology approaches, the cerebral regions involved in this phenomenon and the influence of alcohol intake on this process remain unknown. The aim of this functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) study was to investigate the neural mechanisms underlying the processing of task-irrelevant alcohol-related stimuli in young heavy drinkers and their modulation by alcohol administration.
METHODS: Twelve heavy drinking male participants were scanned on 2 separate days; once after a low dose of alcohol intake (0.4 g/kg), and once after a placebo intake, in balanced order. Images of alcoholic drinks, soft drinks, or neutral objects were shown while participants' neural activity was recorded through fMRI. Moreover, participants' attentional focus was manipulated using a task which required them to process the central images of interest (focus alcohol condition) or a center unattended task (focus not on alcohol condition).
RESULTS: Results indicated that an explicit judgment on beverage-related cues increased activation in the prefrontal area compared with the judgment of neutral objects. By comparison with that of task-irrelevant neutral cues, the processing of task-irrelevant alcohol-related cues increased the activation in a large network of cerebral areas including visual and temporal regions, the bilateral anterior cingulate cortex, the posterior cingulate cortex, and the putamen. Moreover, in the condition with focus not on alcohol, the ventral tegmental area (VTA) was particularly activated by the presentation of (task-irrelevant) alcohol-related cues compared to task-irrelevant soft-drink-related cues.
CONCLUSIONS: The VTA was especially involved in the automatic processing of alcohol-related cues in young heavy drinkers. Low dose of alcohol did not modulate the neural substrates involved in the processing of salient alcohol-related cues.