Qualitative poor decision-making and associated altered neuronal activation patterns have been described for the users of several drugs, amongst others for stimulants like amphetamine and MDMA. Deficits in decision-making might be caused by an augmented attraction to short-term rewarding properties despite negative long-term consequences, leading to rigid stimulus–response patterns. In the present imaging study, we investigated decision-making and associated neuronal activation in three groups differing in their exposure to amphetamine and MDMA. An established paradigm on risky choices was used to evaluate decision-making performance and corresponding functional magnet resonance imaging (fMRI) activation. Subjects could choose between a low-risk control gamble and an experimental gamble, which always differed in the probability of winning or losing, as well as the magnitudes of monetary gain or loss. Experienced users (EU), users with low exposure to stimulants and drug-naive controls, did not differ from each other in behavioral performance. In accordance with our hypotheses, the anticipation of reward led to an activation of primarily the frontal cortex and the striatum in low-exposure users and drug-naive controls. In contrast, frontal and parietal activation was observed in all groups when the actual outcome of an experimental gamble was presented. EU displayed more activation compared to both control groups when there was a high probability of winning. The study at hand supports the hypothesis that neuronal activation patterns might even differ between drug users and healthy controls when no behavioral deficits are apparent. In EU, the probability of the occurrence of an event has more influence on neuronal activation than on the actual magnitude of reinforcing properties of this event.
P. Koester, Kirsten G. Volz, M. Tittgemeyer