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High Versus Low Level of Response to Alcohol: Evidence of Differential Reactivity to Emotional Stimuli

      Background

      The low level of response (LR) or sensitivity to alcohol is genetically influenced and predicts heavy drinking and alcohol problems. Functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) studies using cognitive tasks suggest that subjects with a low-LR process cognitive information differently after placebo and alcohol than those with a high LR, but no studies have evaluated whether similar LR group differences are seen during an emotional processing task.

      Methods

      The fMRI data were gathered from 116 nonalcoholic subjects (60 women) after oral placebo or approximately .7 mL/kg of ethanol while performing a modified emotional faces processing task. These included 58 low- and high-LR pairs matched on demography and aspects of substance use.

      Results

      Blood alcohol levels and task performance were similar across LR groups, but low-LR subjects consumed approximately .8 drinks more/occasion. Thirteen brain regions (mostly the middle and inferior frontal gyri, cingulate, and insula) showed significant LR group or LR × placebo/alcohol condition interactions for emotional (mostly happy) faces relative to non-face trials. Low-LR subjects generally showed decreasing blood-oxygen level-dependent response contrasts across placebo to alcohol, whereas high LR showed increasing contrasts from placebo to alcohol, even after controlling for drinking quantities and alcohol-related changes in cerebral blood flow.

      Conclusions

      Thus, LR group fMRI differences are as prominent during an emotional face task as during cognitive paradigms. Low-LR individuals processed both types of information in a manner that might contribute to an impaired ability to recognize modest levels of alcohol intoxication in a range of life situations.

      Key Words

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