Deficits in Access to Reward Are Associated with College Student Alcohol Use Disorder


Background: Reward deprivation has been implicated in major depressive disorder and severe substance abuse, but its potential relation to alcohol use disorder (AUD) symptoms in non-treatment-seeking young adult drinkers is less clear. Depression is often comorbid with alcohol misuse, so relations of AUD with reward deprivation might be due in part to the presence of depressive symptoms in young adults. Behavioral economic theory views addiction as a state that is related in part to deficits in drug-free rewards, and therefore requires an investigation into whether reward deprivation has a direct relation to alcohol misuse that is, at least partially, independent of mood. Methods: This study evaluates the contribution of 2 facets of reward deprivation (reward availability and experience) to alcohol use, AUD symptoms, and depression in a sample of young adult heavy episodic drinkers. Data were collected from 392 undergraduates (60.4% female, 85.1% Caucasian) who reported recent heavy drinking (83.7% with at least 1 AUD symptom). Results: Low reward availability (environmental suppression) was significantly associated with both DSM-5 AUD symptoms and alcohol-related problems after controlling for age, gender, depressive symptomatology, and drinking level. Conclusions: This study provides support for behavioral economic models that emphasize reward deprivation as a unique risk factor for AUD that is independent of mood and drinking level. Limited access to natural rewards may be a risk and/or maintaining factor for AUD symptoms in college student drinkers.

Publication Title

Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research