Cue-reactivity is thought to play a fundamental role in the maintenance of addiction. The incentive sensitization theory proposes that conditioned responses are related to increased sensitivity of the reward-related dopaminergic pathways in the brain. However, neuroimaging studies on alcohol cue-reactivity show inconsistent results.
Stimuli content of 26 alcohol cue-reactivity studies was systematically reviewed.
No differences were found between alcoholic beverage stimuli and non-alcoholic beverage stimuli in human display and brand factors; however, alcoholic beverage stimuli were more likely to display social interaction compared to non-alcoholic beverage stimuli.
Given that processing of social information activates brain areas that partly overlap with reward-related brain areas associated with cue-reactivity, such differences between conditions can introduce noise in the findings. We therefore suggest matching stimuli sets on the reviewed factors carefully to improve reliability of neuroimaging studies investigating alcohol-related cue-reactivity.