BACKGROUND: Alcoholism is often associated with impaired emotional control. Alcoholics have also been found to have deficits in frontal lobe executive functions. Recent functional imaging studies have suggested that alcoholics show greater activation than nonalcoholics in circuits involving frontal lobes, as well as more posterior brain regions, when engaged in executive-type tasks. In this study, we compared brain activations of alcohol-dependent patients and healthy nonalcoholics while they performed 2 simple judgment tasks designed to activate frontal circuits involved in a basic form of decision making. Participants completed 1 judgment task that required an emotional judgment and 1 task that did not, which enabled us to study whether alcoholics had greater brain activation while performing executive tasks, and to determine if emotional tasks elicited even greater activation than nonemotional tasks.
METHODS: We performed functional magnetic resonance imaging scans while alcoholic patients and nonalcoholic controls viewed pictures from the International Affective Picture System. In 3 separate runs, participants viewed the images without making a judgment, determined whether the images were indoor or outdoor scenes, or decided if they liked or disliked the images.
RESULTS: There was little difference in brain activation between alcoholics and controls when no judgment was required. When participants made judgments about either the location or whether they liked or disliked an image, however, we observed significantly increased activation in frontal, limbic, and temporal regions in the patients relative to the controls. Increases were particularly robust in the frontal lobe and in areas of the brain associated with language. When we compared the emotional to the nonemotional judgment, the alcoholics, but not the controls, showed greater activation in the ventral mesial frontal cortex.
CONCLUSIONS: Alcoholic patients appear to use brain language areas more than nonalcoholics while making judgments about the setting or liking of emotionally arousing visual images. This increased activation may reflect a compensatory recruitment of brain regions to perform simple decision-making tasks.