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PLoS One. 2015 Nov 18;10(11):e0142659. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0142659. eCollection 2015.

Deficient Event-Related Theta Oscillations in Individuals at Risk for Alcoholism: A Study of Reward Processing and Impulsivity Features.

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SUNY Downstate Medical Center, Brooklyn, NY, United States of America.
Washington University School of Medicine, St. Louis, MO, United States of America.
University of Connecticut Health Center, Farmington, CT, United States of America.
University of Iowa, Iowa City, IA, United States of America.
University of California San Diego, San Diego, CA, United States of America.



Individuals at high risk to develop alcoholism often manifest neurocognitive deficits as well as increased impulsivity. Event-related oscillations (EROs) have been used to effectively measure brain (dys)function during cognitive tasks in individuals with alcoholism and related disorders and in those at risk to develop these disorders. The current study examines ERO theta power during reward processing as well as impulsivity in adolescent and young adult subjects at high risk for alcoholism.


EROs were recorded during a monetary gambling task (MGT) in 12-25 years old participants (N = 1821; males = 48%) from high risk alcoholic families (HR, N = 1534) and comparison low risk community families (LR, N = 287) from the Collaborative Study on the Genetics of Alcoholism (COGA). Impulsivity scores and prevalence of externalizing diagnoses were also compared between LR and HR groups.


HR offspring showed lower theta power and decreased current source density (CSD) activity than LR offspring during loss and gain conditions. Younger males had higher theta power than younger females in both groups, while the older HR females showed more theta power than older HR males. Younger subjects showed higher theta power than older subjects in each comparison. Differences in topography (i.e., frontalization) between groups were also observed. Further, HR subjects across gender had higher impulsivity scores and increased prevalence of externalizing disorders compared to LR subjects.


As theta power during reward processing is found to be lower not only in alcoholics, but also in HR subjects, it is proposed that reduced reward-related theta power, in addition to impulsivity and externalizing features, may be related in a predisposition to develop alcoholism and related disorders.

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