Context-induced relapse to alcohol seeking is associated with selective activation of the anterior insular cortex. Outline of the experimental procedure (A). Number of Fos-positive neurons per square millimetre in the anterior insular cortex in rats tested in Context A: alcohol context, or in Context B: punishment context who were either low relapsing or high relapsing. Correlation between alcohol seeking behavior in Context B: punishment context and active lever presses on relapse test (B). Credit: Campbell et al., JNeurosci (2018)

Activation of the anterior insular cortex—a brain region implicated in drug abuse—rather than drinking history or motivation for alcohol predicts relapse after a month of abstinence, reports a study of male rats published in JNeurosci. The results may explain why some individuals are more likely than others to relapse.

Using a recently developed animal model of -seeking, Andrew Lawrence, Erin Campbell, and colleagues studied a defining feature of human alcohol use disorder: the tendency to relapse following self-imposed abstinence, despite known health and social consequences. Alcohol-using rats were more likely to relapse after 30 days of abstinence in an environment in which they were previously punished with a foot shock, suggesting alcohol-seeking in the face of adversity. This finding is relevant to the human experience of returning to alcohol use after a distressing event, such as an ended relationship or loss of a job.

Identification of the anterior insular cortex—inactivation of which prevented relapse in the punishment context—furthers our understanding the neurobiology of relapse, which could inform preventative strategies for in humans.

More information: JNeurosci (2018). DOI: 10.1523/JNEUROSCI.1596-18.2018

Journal information: Journal of Neuroscience