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Neural responses to threat and reward interact to predict stress-related problem drinking: A novel protective role of the amygdala

Yuliya S Nikolova* and Ahmad R Hariri

Author affiliations

Laboratory of NeuroGenetics, Department of Psychology & Neuroscience and Institute for Genome Sciences & Policy, Duke University, NC 27708, Durham, USA

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Citation and License

Biology of Mood & Anxiety Disorders 2012, 2:19  doi:10.1186/2045-5380-2-19

Published: 14 November 2012



Research into neural mechanisms of drug abuse risk has focused on the role of dysfunction in neural circuits for reward. In contrast, few studies have examined the role of dysfunction in neural circuits of threat in mediating drug abuse risk. Although typically regarded as a risk factor for mood and anxiety disorders, threat-related amygdala reactivity may serve as a protective factor against substance use disorders, particularly in individuals with exaggerated responsiveness to reward.


We used well-established neuroimaging paradigms to probe threat-related amygdala and reward-related ventral striatum reactivity in a sample of 200 young adult students from the ongoing Duke Neurogenetics Study. Recent life stress and problem drinking were assessed using self-report. We found a significant three-way interaction between threat-related amygdala reactivity, reward-related ventral striatum reactivity, and recent stress, wherein individuals with higher reward-related ventral striatum reactivity exhibit higher levels of problem drinking in the context of stress, but only if they also have lower threat-related amygdala reactivity. This three-way interaction predicted both contemporaneous problem drinking and problem drinking reported three-months later in a subset of participants.


These findings suggest complex interactions between stress and neural responsiveness to both threat and reward mediate problem drinking. Furthermore, they highlight a novel protective role for threat-related amygdala reactivity against drug use in individuals with high neural reactivity to reward.

Amygdala; Ventral striatum; Threat; Reward; Stress; Alcohol