Association of Prefrontal-Striatal Functional Pathology With Alcohol Abstinence Days at Treatment Initiation and Heavy Drinking After Treatment Initiation.
Alcohol use disorder (AUD) is associated with neuroadaptations in brain stress and reward circuits. It is not known whether such neuroadaptations are affected by number of days of alcohol abstinence and whether they influence heavy drinking during the early treatment phase. The authors used a novel functional MRI (fMRI) approach to assess brain responses during sustained exposure to standardized visual stimuli of stressful, alcohol cue, and neutral control images combined with prospective assessment of drinking outcomes during early outpatient treatment, in two related studies.In study 1, 44 treatment-entering patients with AUD and 43 demographically matched healthy control subjects participated in the fMRI experiment to identify dysfunctional responses associated with chronic alcohol abuse. In study 2, 69 treatment-entering patients with AUD were assessed for whether fMRI responses at treatment initiation were influenced by alcohol abstinence and were prospectively predictive of early heavy drinking outcomes.Relative to control subjects, patients with AUD showed significant hyperreactivity in the ventromedial prefrontal cortex (vmPFC) in response to neutral images, but significant hypoactivation in the vmPFC and ventral striatum in response to stress images and to alcohol cues relative to response to neutral images. In study 2, this specific prefrontal-ventral striatal dysfunction was associated with fewer days of alcohol abstinence and also predicted greater number heavy drinking days during the subsequent 2 weeks of treatment engagement.Number of days of alcohol abstinence at treatment initiation significantly affected functional disruption of the prefrontal-striatal responses to stress images and to alcohol cues in patients with AUD, and the severity of this disruption in turn predicted greater heavy drinking during early treatment. Treatments that target this functional prefrontal-striatal pathology could improve early treatment outcomes in AUD.