Substance use disorder is characterized by a transition from volitional to compulsive responding for drug reward. A possible explanation for this transition may be that alcohol-dependent patients (ADP) show a general propensity for a history of rewarded instrumental responses, and these rewarded responses may boost the activation of motivational neurocircuitry for additional reward. Brain imaging studies of decision-making have demonstrated that ADP relative to controls (CON) often show altered neural activation in response to anticipating and receiving rewards, but the majority of studies have not investigated how past performance affects activation. A potential exists for ADP to show increased sensitivity to reward as a function of reward delivery history. In the current study, we used functional magnetic resonance imaging to investigate the neural correlates of risky decision-making in ADP (n = 18) and CON (n = 18) while they played a two-choice monetary risk-taking game. In addition to investigating general neural recruitment by risky decision-making, we also modeled each participant's running total of monetary earnings in order to determine areas of activation that correlated with cumulative reward. We found that ADP and CON showed few differences in behavior or in mesolimbic activation by choice for, and receipt of, risky gains. However, when including a cumulative-earnings covariate, ADP exhibited heightened striatal activation that correlated with total earnings during the choice event in the task. The heightened contextual sensitivity of striatal responses to cumulative earnings in ADP may represent a general neurobiological affective substrate for development of automatized instrumental behavior.
Alcohol-dependent patients (ADP) relative to controls (CON) often show altered neural activation in striatal regions in response to anticipating and receiving rewards. When modeling response to cumulative rewards using fMRI during risky decision-making, we found ADP, but not CON, exhibited heightened striatal activation that correlated with total earnings during risky choice and feedback task events. This heightened response to cumulative reward may in part underlie exaggerated pursuit of gains at risk of loss in ADP.