Opioid use disorder (OUD) is characterized by heightened cognitive, physiological, and neural responses to opioid-related cues that are mediated by mesocorticolimbic brain pathways. Craving and withdrawal are key symptoms of addiction that persist during physiological abstinence. The present study evaluated the relationship between the brain response to drug cues in OUD and baseline levels of craving and withdrawal. We used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to examine brain responses to opioid-related pictures and control pictures in 29 OUD patients. Baseline measures of drug use severity, opioid craving, and withdrawal symptoms were assessed prior to cue exposure and correlated with subsequent brain responses to drug cues. Mediation analysis was conducted to test the indirect effect of drug use severity on brain cue reactivity through craving and withdrawal symptoms. We found that baseline drug use severity and opioid withdrawal symptoms, but not craving, were positively associated with the neural response to drug cues in the nucleus accumbens, orbitofrontal cortex, and amygdala. Withdrawal, but not craving, mediated the effect of drug use severity on the nucleus accumbens’ response to drug cues. We did not find similar effects for the neural responses to stimuli unrelated to drugs. Our findings emphasize the central role of withdrawal symptoms as the mediator between the clinical severity of OUD and the brain correlates of sensitization to opioid-related cues. They suggest that in OUD, baseline withdrawal symptoms signal a high vulnerability to drug cues.
© 2020 Society for the Study of Addiction.