Weak ventral striatal responses to monetary outcomes predict an unwillingness to resist cigarette smoking
As a group, cigarette smokers exhibit blunted subjective, behavioral, and neurobiological responses to nondrug incentives and rewards, relative to nonsmokers. Findings from recent studies suggest, however, that there are large individual differences in the devaluation of nondrug rewards among smokers. Moreover, this variability appears to have significant clinical implications, since reduced sensitivity to nondrug rewards is associated with poorer smoking cessation outcomes. Currently, little is known about the neurobiological mechanisms that underlie these individual differences in the responsiveness to nondrug rewards. Here, we tested the hypothesis that individual variability in reward devaluation among smokers is linked to the functioning of the striatum. Specifically, functional magnetic resonance imaging was used to examine variability in the neural response to monetary outcomes in nicotine-deprived smokers anticipating an opportunity to smoke—circumstances found to heighten the devaluation of nondrug rewards by smokers in prior work. We also investigated whether individual differences in reward-related brain activity in those expecting to have access to cigarettes were associated with the degree to which the same individuals subsequently were willing to resist smoking in order to earn additional money. Our key finding was that deprived smokers who exhibited the weakest response to rewards (i.e., monetary gains) in the ventral striatum were least willing to refrain from smoking for monetary reinforcement. These results provide evidence that outcome-related signals in the ventral striatum serve as a marker for clinically meaningful individual differences in reward-motivated behavior among nicotine-deprived smokers.