Widespread disruption in brain activation patterns to a working memory task during cocaine abstinence
Cocaine abstinence is associated with impaired performance in cognitive functions including attention, vigilance and executive function. Here we test the hypothesis that cognitive dysfunction during cocaine abstinence reflects in part impairment of cortical and subcortical regions modulated by dopamine. We used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to study brain activation to a verbal working memory task in cocaine abusers (n=16) and healthy controls (n=16). Compared to controls, cocaine abusers showed: (1) hypoactivation in the mesencephalon, where dopamine neurons are located, as well as the thalamus, a brain region involved in arousal; (2) larger deactivation in dopamine projection regions (putamen, anterior cingulate, parahippocampal gyrus, and amygdala); and (3) hyperactivation in cortical regions involved with attention (prefrontal and parietal cortices), which probably reflects increased attention and control processes as compensatory mechanisms. Furthermore, the working memory load activation was lower in the prefrontal and parietal cortices in cocaine abusers when compared with controls, which might reflect limited network capacity. These abnormalities were accentuated in the cocaine abusers with positive urines for cocaine at time of study (as compared to cocaine abusers with negative urines) suggesting that the deficits may reflect in part early cocaine abstinence. These findings provide evidence of impaired function of regions involved with executive control, attention and vigilance in cocaine abusers. This widespread neurofunctional disruption is likely to underlie the cognitive deficits during early cocaine abstinence and to reflect involvement of dopamine as well as other neurotransmitters.