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Varenicline effects on amygdala in response to fearful faces in heavy drinkers

Monday, September 22, 2014 — Poster Session I

12:00 p.m. – 2:00 p.m.

FAES Academic Center



* FARE Award Winner


  • J.G. Westman
  • J.L. Gowin
  • V. Vatsalya
  • M. Schwandt
  • R. Momenan
  • M.E. Coe
  • M.C. Cooke
  • S. Bartlett
  • M. Heilig
  • V.A. Ramchandani


Alcohol use disorders are a major public health burden and are often associated with internalizing symptoms such as heightened anxiety. Varenicline, a nicotinic acetylcholine receptor (nAChR) partial agonist, has been shown to reduce alcohol consumption in animal and human studies. Stimulation of the nAChR in rats has been shown to cause dopamine release in the amygdala, a region associated with anxiety and fear-response. No human study has examined whether varenicline’s effects on drinking are related to changes in amygdala response to fearful stimuli. In this study, heavy drinkers, aged 21-60, were randomly assigned to receive varenicline (2 mg/day) or placebo. Following 2 weeks of treatment, participants underwent an fMRI scan while viewing images showing fearful and neutral faces. Whole brain linear mixed effects analysis revealed a significant treatment group by condition interaction effect in two clusters which contained the amygdala. Specifically, the placebo group exhibited increased activity when viewing fearful relative to neutral faces, while the varenicline group showed no difference in activation to both facial expressions. These findings suggest that varenicline may reduce amygdala activation in response to anxiety-inducing cues, which may be related to its effect on lowering alcohol consumption in heavy drinkers.

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