Buzzed brains: fMRI shows dips in college students' cognitive control

Heading to college for many students brings increased social pressure to drink, but a pilot study looking at neural processes has found connections among brain regions involved in emotion processing and cognitive control may  change with this increased exposure to alcohol and alcohol-related cues, according to results published in the April issue of Addictive Behaviors.

Functional MRI (fMRI) data from first-year college students revealed signs in their brains’ emotion processing networks of habituation to alcohol-related stimuli and a noticeable alteration in cognitive control networks, according to Adriene Beltz, graduate student at Pennsylvania State University in University Park, and colleagues.

"The brain is a complex network," Beltz said in a release. "We know that connections among different brain regions are important for behavior, and we know that many of these connections are still developing into early adulthood. Thus, alcohol could have far-reaching consequences on a maturing brain, directly influencing some brain regions and indirectly influencing others by disrupting neural connectivity."

Eleven first-year students participated in a series of three fMRI sessions beginning just before the start of classes and concluding part-way through the second semester. While in the fMRI scanner, students were asked to press a button when images of alcoholic and non-alcoholic beverages were displayed on a screen. From the data, effective connectivity maps were created for each individual and for the group.

The final maps demonstrated less connectivity in brain regions involved in emotion-processing when the students responded to alcohol cues than when they responded to non-alcohol cues, according to the researchers. Brain regions involved in cognitive control showed the most connectivity during the first semester of college, suggesting students needed to heavily recruit brain regions involved in cognitive control in order to overcome the alcohol-associated stimuli when instructed to respond to non-alcohol cues.

"Connectivity among brain regions implicated in cognitive control spiked from the summer before college to the first semester of college," said Beltz. "This was particularly interesting because the spike coincided with increases in the participants' alcohol use and increases in their exposure to alcohol cues in the college environment. From the first semester to the second semester, levels of alcohol use and cue exposure remained steady, but connectivity among cognitive control brain regions decreased. From this, we concluded that changes in alcohol use and cue exposure -- not absolute levels -- were reflected by the underlying neural processes."

More research is needed to understand the longer-term effects of alcohol on development; a follow-up study to track a larger number of participants over a greater length of time has been planned, according to the researchers.