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J Stud Alcohol. 1998 May;59(3):258-69.

Alcohol activates the cerebral reward system in man.

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PET-Cognitive Neurophysiology R2-01, Department of Clinical Neuroscience, Karolinska Hospital, Stockholm, Sweden.



We investigated the effect of 0.07% alcohol on regional brain activity at rest and during cognitive performance in order to elucidate the anatomical substrate for the effects of alcohol in man as well as to clarify the interaction between changes in cerebral activity induced by cognitive performance and alcohol inebriation.


Regional cerebral blood flow (3D-PET, 15O Butanol) was measured in 13 male, nonalcoholic volunteers. Each subject was scanned 12 times, three scans in each of the following four situations: sober/rest, sober/test and inebriated/rest, inebriated/test. We used statistical parametric mapping and a computerized brain atlas for localization.


Alcohol induced a sense of inebriation and elation as well as a relative increase of the cerebral blood flow in medial parts of the temporal lobes, in the anterobasal parts of the anterior cingulate cortex including the septal region. In addition, there was an increase of blood flow in midline parts of the lower brain stem. Relative decreases of flow were observed in the cerebellum and in the occipital cortex bilaterally. In the sober state, a computerized perceptual maze test and a (silent) serial seven test induced two distinct neocortical activation patterns that were specific to the tasks. Alcohol did not change these patterns and the test performance was also uninfluenced.


A moderate dose of alcohol selectively activates target structures that pertain to the so-called cerebral reward system and the ascending reticular activating system. Alcohol (approximately 0.07%) appears to have only minor effects in the neocortical systems that are involved in on-line cognitive activity. This apparent independence between the subcortical alcohol target and the neocortical cognitive mechanisms is a new finding that appears to be of importance for an understanding of the effect of moderate doses of alcohol on the brain.

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