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A Case for Studying Brain Asymmetry in Drug Use

September 06, 2016
By Sheri Grabus, Ph.D., NIDA Notes Contributing Writer

A new study proposes that research into the discrete roles played by the brain’s two hemispheres could yield important and actionable insights into drug use and addiction. Dr. Harold Gordon, of NIDA’s Epidemiology Research Branch, marshaled several lines of evidence indicating that two risk factors for substance use, impulsivity and craving, primarily reflect activity in the right and left hemispheres, respectively.

Dr. Gordon compiled scores of published reports of functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) studies that provided data on brain activity in the right and left hemispheres during:

  • Go/no-go and stop-signal tests, both of which assess subjects’ ability to resist impulses to repeat a learned response when it is no longer appropriate
  • Cue-induced craving protocols, which measure the intensity of drug users’ craving in response to drug-associated images, texts, or other environmental cues

Dr. Gordon computed laterality, defined as the difference in peak activation levels between the hemispheres, while test subjects performed each test or protocol.

Figure 1. Greater Right Than Left Hemispheric Activation for Some Brain Areas Depends Upon Impulsivity Task Both go/no-go (blue bars) and stop-signal (orange bars) tests were associated with greater right than left hemisphere activation for the area that includes the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex and for the insula (left panel). During the stop-signal, but not the go/no-go test, right laterality was also seen in areas that included the OFC and anterior cingulate (right panel). These findings indicate that, although both tasks produced greater overall activation in the right compared to left hemisphere, they measured somewhat different aspects of impulsivity.
Text Description of Graphic

Participants in 27 fMRI studies of impulsivity exhibited right laterality, indicating that they primarily activated neurons in the right hemisphere to try to resist impulsive responses. When Dr. Gordon calculated laterality in regional structures, he found that more activity peaks occurred in several areas of the right hemisphere, including the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex and the insula. Right laterality was seen for both the stop-signal test and the go/no-go test in the anterior cingulate, but only for the stop-signal test in the orbitofrontal cortex (OFC) (see Figure 1). This difference suggests that the two tests measure different aspects of impulsivity. The OFC and anterior cingulate underpin reward valuation and emotional regulation.

Figure 2. Craving Produces Greater Activation in the Left Hemisphere Than in the Right Hemisphere Greater brain activity was seen in the left than in the right, hemisphere following cues that triggered cravings for cocaine, food, nicotine (in nicotine-deprived smokers), alcohol, heroin, and marijuana, but not for gaming. For the nicotine group, lateralization switched to the right hemisphere (not shown) if participants were allowed to smoke to reduce craving.
Text Description of Graphic

Patients’ craving responses to drug cues were associated with left laterality when averaged across all 48 craving studies that Dr. Gordon reviewed, suggesting that neural activity in the left hemisphere primarily drives these responses. This pattern of predominantly left activation during cue-induced craving held among study participants who used cocaine, heroin, marijuana, or alcohol. It also was seen, interestingly, with cue-induced craving for food, but not for craving related to computer gaming (see Figure 2).

Findings from fMRI studies of smokers reinforced the link between craving and left laterality. When all the studies of smokers’ craving were averaged together, there was no left/right asymmetry in activation. However, in the studies where smokers were not allowed to smoke for a day before fMRI measurements, the results showed left laterality similar to those for users of the other substances; while in studies when smokers were allowed to smoke before the measurements, the results showed right laterality.

Neurotransmitters and Structural Organization

Dr. Gordon cites previous research that, parallel to the right/left dichotomy in brain activation during impulsivity and craving, has linked:

  • inhibitory responses and avoidance behaviors to neurotransmitter activity in the right hemisphere and appetitive responses, and
  • approach behaviors to neurotransmitter activity in the left hemisphere.

Dr. Gordon says that these relationships may be important for understanding and ultimately managing drug use disorders.

Among the neurotransmitter studies, one associated dopamine D2 receptor binding in the right hemisphere with motivation to avoid punishment, and greater D2 binding in the left hemisphere with motivation to seek rewards. Other studies have suggested right hemisphere laterality for serotonin activation, which could underlie emotional processing. A few studies, primarily done in rodents, indicate that the neurotransmitter norepinephrine is related to left hemisphere laterality and reward.

Other studies have demonstrated inter-hemisphere differences in structural organization and functional connectivity. A few of these have linked the differences to craving and impulsivity.

Dr. Gordon says that elucidation of how the right and left hemispheres differ and interact in activation, structural organization, and neurotransmitter activity could yield new insights into craving, impulsivity, and other brain mechanisms involved in drug use and addiction. Such knowledge could lead to new prevention and treatment interventions. They might be particularly useful for therapies such as transcranial magnetic stimulation, which, when applied to the left hemisphere but not the right has been shown to reduce craving in smokers and users of cocaine.


Gordon, H.W. Laterality of Brain Activation for Risk Factors of Addiction. Current Drug Abuse Reviews 9(1), 2016. Abstract

See a video of Dr. Gordon talking about brain laterality in addiction.

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This page was last updated September 2016

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    NIDA. (2016, September 6). A Case for Studying Brain Asymmetry in Drug Use. Retrieved from https://www.drugabuse.gov/news-events/nida-notes/2016/09/case-studying-brain-asymmetry-in-drug-use

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