June 2013

Document Type


Degree Name



Dept. of Behavioral Neuroscience


Oregon Health & Science University


Individuals with alcohol use disorders (AUDs) have deficits in emotion recognition as well as atypical function and structure in brain regions important for affective processing. These symptoms are often associated with problems in executive functioning. Interestingly, even prior to heavy alcohol use, youth with a family history of alcoholism (FHP) are at greater risk for emotional problems and exhibit deficits in cognitive control compared to youth without a family history of alcoholism (FHN). Given that FHP youth are at much greater risk for developing an AUD than FHN youth, it is essential to clarify whether brain and behavior phenotypes related to the interplay between affective processing and executive functioning may be pre-morbid risk factors for the development of AUDs in FHP youth. Thus, the goal of this study was to investigate brain function and behavior, related to emotional processing in FHP youth, as well as examine their associations with executive functioning, prior to heavy alcohol use. Specifically, this dissertation investigated emotional processing and its association with cognitive functioning using behavioral measures, which included an explicit emotion recognition task, as well as a subjective emotional valence and arousal rating task. Additionally, functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) and resting state functional connectivity magnetic resonance imaging (rs-fcMRI) were used to examine brain response to emotional faces, cognitive control in emotional contexts, and the intrinsic connectivity between limbic and cortical brain regions. The results of these studies suggest that FHP and FHN youth do not have significant differences in emotion recognition or subjective ratings of affective stimuli. However, fMRI showed that neural reactivity to emotional faces and cognitive control in emotional contexts were reduced in FHP youth compared to their peers, in left superior temporal cortex, and fronto-striatal regions, respectively. These findings indicate blunted response to positively valenced faces and weaker cognitive control brain activity in FHP youth. Further, FHP youth had many differences from FHN adolescents in resting state synchrony between the amygdala, and other brain areas, including prefrontal cortex and cerebellum, suggesting that intrinsic brain connectivity may be altered in FHP youth. Specifically, weaker left amygdala to left superior frontal gyrus connectivity was related to more inhibitory control errors in FHP youth. The findings from these studies present altered task-related and intrinsic brain response in limbic and cognitive control circuitry in FHP youth. This dissertation includes the examination of emotion recognition, affective ratings of emotional stimuli, brain response to emotional faces, emotion-cognition interactions, and resting state functional connectivity in FHP youth. By investigating brain activity and behavior in FHP and FHN youth prior to heavy alcohol use, these studies provides insight into the neural and behavioral phenotypes associated with familial alcoholism, which may relate to increased risk for developing AUDs. Understanding whether atypical emotional processing and associated deficits in cognitive control are present in FHP youth prior to heavy alcohol use will allow future research to establish prevention strategies aimed at reducing the development of AUDs.




School of Medicine



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