Sexually dimorphic structural abnormalities in major connections of the medial forebrain bundle in alcoholism

Rivas-Grajales AM, Sawyer KS, Karmacharya S, Papadimitriou G, Camprodon JA, Harris GJ, Kubicki M, Oscar-Berman M, Makris N

Neuroimage Clin 2018;19:98-105

PMID: 30035007


Background: The mesocorticolimbic system is particularly susceptible to the effects of chronic alcoholism. Disruption of this system has been linked to drug seeking and the development of Reward Deficiency Syndrome, a neurobiological framework for describing the development and relapsing patterns of addictions. In this study, we evaluated the association of alcoholism and sex with major connections of the medial forebrain bundle (MFB), a prominent mesocorticolimbic fiber pathway connecting the ventral tegmental area with the basal forebrain. Given sex differences in clinical consequences of alcohol consumption, we hypothesized that alcoholic men and women would differ in structural abnormalities of the MFB.

Methods: Diffusion magnetic resonance imaging (dMRI) data were acquired from 30 abstinent long-term alcoholic individuals (ALC; 9 men) and 25 non-alcoholic controls (NC; 8 men). Major connections of the MFB were extracted using multi-tensor tractography. We compared groups on MFB volume, fractional anisotropy (FA), radial diffusivity (RD), and axial diffusivity (AD), with hemisphere and sex as independent variables. We also evaluated associations between abnormal structural measures and drinking measures.

Results: Analyses revealed significant group-by-sex interactions for FA and RD: while ALC men had lower FA and higher RD compared to NC men, ALC women had higher FA and lower RD compared to NC women. We also detected a significant negative association between FA and number of daily drinks in ALC women.

Conclusion: Alcoholism is associated with sexually dimorphic structural abnormalities in the MFB. The results expand upon other findings of differences in brain reward circuitry of alcoholic men and women.