Background: Human and animal work suggests a shift from goal-directed to habitual decision-making in addiction. However, the evidence for this in human alcohol dependence is as yet inconclusive.
Methods: Twenty-six healthy controls and 26 recently detoxified alcohol-dependent patients underwent behavioral testing with a 2-step task designed to disentangle goal-directed and habitual response patterns.
Results: Alcohol-dependent patients showed less evidence of goal-directed choices than healthy controls, particularly after losses. There was no difference in the strength of the habitual component. The group differences did not survive controlling for performance on the Digit Symbol Substitution Task.
Conclusion: Chronic alcohol use appears to selectively impair goal-directed function, rather than promoting habitual responding. It appears to do so particularly after nonrewards, and this may be mediated by the effects of alcohol on more general cognitive functions subserved by the prefrontal cortex.