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Viewing alcohol advertisements elicits activation in the reward system of the brain among college students

Previous research has documented a relationship between exposure to alcohol marketing and underage drinking and has examined the relationship between cue exposure and behavioral enactment based on activation of the brain’s reward system within various appetitive domains. However, the relationship between neural activation to alcohol advertisements and alcohol consumption has not been studied in a non-disordered population. A new study examined whether activation of the brain’s reward system in response to alcohol advertisements is associated with college drinking. Participants (N = 43) were Dartmouth undergraduate students between the ages of 18 to 22 years. Participants completed an fMRI scanning session followed by a survey that assessed their drinking patterns over the previous month. During the fMRI session, participants viewed images of alcohol and fast food (appetitive control conditions) and images of car and technology advertisements (non-appetitive control conditions). The alcohol consumption survey included questions about their frequency of drinking, typical number of drinks and frequency of binge drinking over the past month. The authors used the general linear model in SPM8 to analyze the fMRI data and a targeted regions-of-interest (ROI) analysis to examine the involvement of putative reward system brain regions. Results showed that the median self-reported frequency of drinking was two to four times in the previous month, with participants consuming three or four drinks on days when they were drinking. Furthermore, the median self-reported frequency of binge drinking was once in the previous month. In response to alcohol advertisements, peak activations from the whole-brain were identified in regions of the reward system, including the left orbitofrontal cortex (OFC) and the left (p < .01) and right (p < .001) ventral striatum (VS). Moreover, while activity in the left OFC correlated with self-reported drinking (p = .02), activity in the left and right VS did not (p = .29). Additional brain regions showed a relationship between brain activation and self-reported drinking (p < .01), including the occipital cortex, left temporal lobe, and cingulate cortex.

Take away: This study found that viewing alcohol advertisements elicited brain activation in regions of the reward system that typically activate to other appetitive rewards and relate to consumption behaviors. In addition, the level of self-reported drinking correlated with the magnitude of activation in the left orbitofrontal cortex.

Courtney, A. L., Rapuano, K. M., Sargent, J. D., Heatherton, T. F., & Kelley, W. M. (2018). Reward system activation in response to alcohol advertisements predicts college drinking. Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs79(1), 29-38.

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