Alcohol affects brain functional connectivity and its coupling with behavior: greater effects in male heavy drinkers

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Abstract

Acute and chronic alcohol exposure significantly affect behavior but the underlying neurobiological mechanisms are still poorly understood. Here, we used functional connectivity density (FCD) mapping to study alcohol-related changes in resting brain activity and their association with behavior. Heavy drinkers (HD, N = 16, 16 males) and normal controls (NM, N = 24, 14 males) were tested after placebo and after acute alcohol administration. Group comparisons showed that NM had higher FCD in visual and prefrontal cortices, default mode network regions and thalamus, while HD had higher FCD in cerebellum. Acute alcohol significantly increased FCD within the thalamus, impaired cognitive and motor functions, and affected self-reports of mood/drug effects in both groups. Partial least squares regression showed that alcohol-induced changes in mood/drug effects were associated with changes in thalamic FCD in both groups. Disruptions in motor function were associated with increases in cerebellar FCD in NM and thalamus FCD in HD. Alcohol-induced declines in cognitive performance were associated with connectivity increases in visual cortex and thalamus in NM, but in HD, increases in precuneus FCD were associated with improved cognitive performance. Acute alcohol reduced ‘neurocognitive coupling', the association between behavioral performance and FCD (indexing brain activity), an effect that was accentuated in HD compared with NM. Findings suggest that reduced cortical connectivity in HD contribute to decline in cognitive abilities associated with heavy alcohol consumption, whereas increased cerebellar connectivity in HD may have compensatory effects on behavioral performance. The results reveal how drinking history alters the association between brain FCD and individual differences in behavioral performance.

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