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Biol Psychiatry. 2011 Sep 15;70(6):545-52. doi: 10.1016/j.biopsych.2011.04.006. Epub 2011 May 25.

Unique brain areas associated with abstinence control are damaged in multiply detoxified alcoholics.

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School of Psychology, University of Sussex, Brighton, United Kingdom.



The ability to abstain from drinking, despite incentives to imbibe, is essential to recovery from alcoholism.


We used an incentive conflict task to investigate ability to abstain from responding during presentations of incentive cues. Both alcoholic (n = 23) and healthy subjects (n = 22) were required to withhold responding during the simultaneous presentation of two visual stimuli in which the individual presentation allowed responding for monetary reward. Brain structures activated during performance of the task were studied using functional magnetic resonance imaging in healthy volunteers (n = 8), and changes in gray matter volume were studied in a separate group of patients (n = 29) compared with control subjects (n = 31) in regions of interest identified on functional magnetic resonance imaging.


Abstinent alcoholic patients were severely impaired on the incentive conflict task. The impairment was greater in patients with experience of several versus a single detoxification. Healthy volunteers, during the same incentive conflict task, showed distinct patterns of brain activation (including gyrus rectus, ventromedial prefrontal cortex, and superior frontal gyrus). Reduction of gray matter volume in ventromedial prefrontal cortex and superior frontal gyrus of patients was more extensive in those with multiple detoxifications.


Performance deficits in alcoholics are associated with withdrawal-induced impairments in prefrontal subfields, which are exacerbated following repeated episodes of detoxification. Detoxification thus compromises functional and structural integrity of prefrontal cortex and may thus impair the ability to control future drinking. Performance in the incentive conflict task is a sensitive biomarker for such deficits.

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