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Certain Brain Activity May Determine Alcohol Dependence Risk

New research found that activation of the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC) in the brain could determine a neurobiological for alcohol dependence risk. The ACC (highlighted in the photo) is the frontal portion of the cingulate cortex. It appears to play a significant role in a wide variety of brain functions including regulation of blood pressure and heart rate, but also of rational cognitive functions like decision making and reward anticipation.

Previous research has found that activation of the ACC can be associated with risk factors that lead to alcohol abuse, such as low alcohol effects and positive alcohol expectations, especially among adolescents. This study, which was funded through the University of Heidelberg and will be published in the May 2010 issue of Alcoholism: Clinical & Experimental Research, used a spatial working-memory task to examine ACC activity among adults.

The study focused on three groups of adults: non-dependent light social drinkers, non-dependent heavy social drinkers, and non-treatment-seeking alcohol dependent drinkers. Using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), the researchers examined the brain activity of the drinkers while they performed a spatial working-memory task. The participants were also asked to complete measures of automatic alcohol-related thoughts and behavior, provide information about alcohol use in the preceding 90 days, and answer questions designed to measure general intelligence. (Science Daily)

The study found that those in the alcohol dependent group had greater activation of the dorsal ACC than those in the non-dependent, light and heavy social drinkers. Researchers said the study showed a possibility for premorbid (i.e. occurring before the development of disease) differences in brain structure and function among individuals that increase the risk for the development of alcohol dependence in some but not others.

“Although alcohol consumption in non-dependent heavy drinkers and [alcohol dependent] drinkers was similar,” said one of the researchers, “[but] we found increased activation of the ACC in the group of [alcohol dependent] drinkers. Furthermore, we found increased activation in the hippocampus and the thalamus in participants with frequent and intense automatic alcohol-related thoughts and behaviour.”

The researches hope that their study and similar studies will lead to diagnostic tools that will help individuals receive the best possible prevention or treatment.

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