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Addiction is supposedly characterized by a shift from goal-directed to habitual decision making, thus facilitating automatic drug intake. The two-step task allows distinguishing between these mechanisms by computationally modeling goal-directed and habitual behavior as model-based and model-free control. In addicted patients, decision making may also strongly depend upon drug-associated expectations.
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In alcohol-dependent patients, brain atrophy and functional brain activation elicited by alcohol-associated stimuli may predict relapse. However, to date, the interaction between both factors has not been studied.
To determine whether results from structural and functional magnetic resonance imaging are associated with relapse in detoxified alcohol-dependent patients.

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Alcohol dependence is a mental disorder that has been associated with an imbalance in behavioral control favoring model-free habitual over model-based goal-directed strategies. It is as yet unknown, however, whether such an imbalance reflects a predisposing vulnerability or results as a consequence of repeated and/or excessive alcohol exposure. We, therefore, examined the association of alcohol consumption with model-based goal-directed and model-free habitual control in 188 18-year-old social drinkers in a two-step sequential decision-making task while undergoing functional magnetic resonance imaging before prolonged alcohol misuse could have led to severe neurobiological adaptations.

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Addicted individuals continue substance use despite the knowledge of harmful consequences and often report having no choice but to consume. Computational psychiatry accounts have linked this clinical observation to difficulties in making flexible and goal-directed decisions in dynamic environments via consideration of potential alternative choices. To probe this in alcohol-dependent patients (n = 43) versus healthy volunteers (n = 35), human participants performed an anticorrelated decision-making task during functional neuroimaging.

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Working memory (WM) impairments are often observed in alcohol-dependent individuals, especially in early abstinence, which may contribute to an increased relapse risk after detoxification. Brain imaging studies on visuospatial WM in alcohol-dependent patients compared to controls indicate that information processing requires compensatory increased neural activation to perform at a normal level. However, to date, no study tested whether such increased neural WM activation patterns or the lack thereof predict relapse behavior in alcohol-dependent individuals, and whether such differences persist when adequately correcting for individual grey matter differences.

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