Effects of Acute Drug Administration on Emotion: A Review of Pharmacological MRI Studies

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Current Addiction Reports

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Purpose of review: Many drug users claim to use drugs to cope with negative emotions, which may, in turn, result in persistent emotional blunting or anhedonia even when they are not using drugs. The purpose of this review is to describe the ways acute administration of psychoactive drugs impacts brain regions during emotion-related tasks, as a first step in understanding how drugs influence emotion processing in the brain.

Recent findings: Drugs have varying effects on neural responses to emotional stimuli. In general, alcohol, analgesics, and psychedelics reduce neural reactivity to negative emotional stimuli in the amygdala and other brain regions. Other drugs produce mixed effects: Stimulants such as caffeine and modafinil increase brain activation while viewing emotional stimuli, whereas MDMA decreases activation during presentation of negative images. The effects of cannabinoids (cannabidiol and THC) are mixed. There are also inconsistent findings on the associations between neural responses to emotional stimuli and subjective drug effects.

Summary: Consistent with the notion that individuals might use drugs non-medically to diminish the experience of negative emotions, several drugs of abuse decrease neural responses to negative stimuli in limbic brain regions. These neural actions may underlie the reported ‘emotional blunting’ of drugs, which may contribute to drug-seeking behavior. Future work is needed to examine these limbic responses in relation to self-reports of changes in affect, both during acute administration and after extended drug use.


KVH is supported through a BrainsCAN Tier 1 postdoctoral fellowship.

Citation of this paper:

Van Hedger, K., Mayo, L. M., Bershad, A. K., Madray, R., & de Wit, H. (2021). Effects of Acute Drug Administration on Emotion: A Review of Pharmacological MRI Studies. Current addiction reports, 8(2), 181–193. https://doi.org/10.1007/s40429-021-00362-y

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Mar 11 2021

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