BACKGROUND Enhanced drug-related reward sensitivity accompanied by impaired sensitivity to non-drug related rewards in the mesolimbic dopamine system are thought to underlie the broad motivational deficits and dysfunctional decision-making frequently observed in cocaine use disorder (CUD). Effective approaches to modify this imbalance and reinstate non-drug reward responsiveness are urgently needed. Here, we examined whether cocaine users (CU) can use mental imagery of non-drug rewards to self-regulate the ventral tegmental area and substantia nigra (VTA/SN). We expected that obsessive and compulsive thoughts about cocaine consumption would hamper the ability to self-regulate the VTA/SN activity and tested if real-time fMRI (rtfMRI) neurofeedback (NFB) can improve self-regulation of the VTA/SN.
METHODS Twenty-two CU and 28 healthy controls (HC) were asked to voluntarily up-regulate VTA/SN activity with non-drug reward imagery alone, or combined with rtfMRI NFB.
RESULTS On a group level, HC and CU were able to activate the dopaminergic midbrain and other reward regions with reward imagery. In CU, the individual ability to self-regulate the VTA/SN was reduced in those with more severe obsessive-compulsive drug use. NFB enhanced the effect of reward imagery but did not result in transfer effects at the end of the session.
CONCLUSION CU can voluntary activate their reward system with non-drug reward imagery and improve this ability with rtfMRI NFB. Combining mental imagery and rtFMRI NFB has great potential for modifying the maladapted reward sensitivity and reinstating non-drug reward responsiveness. This motivates further work to examine the use of rtfMRI NFB in the treatment of CUD.