The Journal of Neuroscience, 2 April 2014, 34(14): 5038-5043; doi: 10.1523/JNEUROSCI.4977-13.2014
Relapse is a widely recognized and difficult to treat feature of the addictions. Substantial evidence implicates cue-triggered activation of the mesolimbic dopamine system as an important contributing factor. Even drug cues presented outside of conscious awareness (i.e., subliminally) produce robust activation within this circuitry, indicating the sensitivity and vulnerability of the brain to potentially problematic reward signals. Because pharmacological agents that prevent these early cue-induced responses could play an important role in relapse prevention, we examined whether baclofen—a GABAB receptor agonist that reduces mesolimbic dopamine release and conditioned drug responses in laboratory animals—could inhibit mesolimbic activation elicited by subliminal cocaine cues in cocaine-dependent individuals. Twenty cocaine-dependent participants were randomized to receive baclofen (60 mg/d; 20 mg t.i.d.) or placebo. Event-related BOLD fMRI and a backward-masking paradigm were used to examine the effects of baclofen on subliminal cocaine (vs neutral) cues. Sexual and aversive cues were included to examine specificity. We observed that baclofen-treated participants displayed significantly less activation in response to subliminal cocaine (vs neutral) cues, but not sexual or aversive (vs neutral) cues, than placebo-treated participants in a large interconnected bilateral cluster spanning the ventral striatum, ventral pallidum, amygdala, midbrain, and orbitofrontal cortex (voxel threshold p < 0.005; cluster corrected at p < 0.05). These results suggest that baclofen may inhibit the earliest type of drug cue-induced motivational processing—that which occurs outside of awareness—before it evolves into a less manageable state.