Neural correlates of reward-based spatial learning in persons with cocaine dependence.
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Dysfunctional learning systems are thought to be central to the pathogenesis of and impair recovery from addictions. The functioning of the brain circuits for episodic memory or learning that support goal-directed behavior has not been studied previously in persons with cocaine dependence (CD). Thirteen abstinent CD and 13 healthy participants underwent MRI scanning while performing a task that requires the use of spatial cues to navigate a virtual-reality environment and find monetary rewards, allowing the functional assessment of the brain systems for spatial learning, a form of episodic memory. Whereas both groups performed similarly on the reward-based spatial learning task, we identified disturbances in brain regions involved in learning and reward in CD participants. In particular, CD was associated with impaired functioning of medial temporal lobe (MTL), a brain region that is crucial for spatial learning (and episodic memory) with concomitant recruitment of striatum (which normally participates in stimulus-response, or habit, learning), and prefrontal cortex. CD was also associated with enhanced sensitivity of the ventral striatum to unexpected rewards but not to expected rewards earned during spatial learning. We provide evidence that spatial learning in CD is characterized by disturbances in functioning of an MTL-based system for episodic memory and a striatum-based system for stimulus-response learning and reward. We have found additional abnormalities in distributed cortical regions. Consistent with findings from animal studies, we provide the first evidence in humans describing the disruptive effects of cocaine on the coordinated functioning of multiple neural systems for learning and memory.