Reduced grey matter in the posterior insula as a structural vulnerability or diathesis to addiction

Simona Gardini, Annalena Venneri

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


A number of neuroimaging studies have shown that drug addiction is associated with morphological differences in several brain areas, including orbito-frontal and limbic structures. Most of these studies have investigated patients with addiction to cocaine. The neurobiological mechanisms which play a role in drug addiction are not fully understood, however, and the causal factors remain under investigation. The present study investigated morphological differences between patients with history of cocaine (N=14) and heroin (N=24) abuse and healthy matched controls (N=24). A 3D T1W MRI scan was acquired for all participants and the grey matter images of each patient group compared with those of controls. A direct comparison of the two addiction groups was also carried out. When compared with controls cocaine dependent patients had lower grey matter values in the left middle occipital gyrus, right putamen and insula, whereas heroin abusers had lower grey matter values in the right insula. The direct comparison between the two addiction groups showed that cocaine abusers had less grey matter in the right posterior cingulate, medio-temporal and cerebellar regions, whereas heroin abusers showed less grey matter in parietal regions on both sides, including postcentral gyrus and inferior parietal lobule. Reduced right posterior insular cortex was commonly found in both cocaine and heroin dependent patients. This morphological difference might represent a structural marker of addiction, which is independent of the discrete regional effects of each psychotropic substance of abuse, and might constitute a possible neurobiological vulnerability or diathesis to addiction. Equally, the discrete structural differences emerging from the direct comparison of cocaine and heroin abusers might reflect the effects of differential drug binding in the brain and/or express a form of neurobiological vulnerability which might explain individual drug choice.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)205-211
Number of pages7
JournalBrain Research Bulletin
Issue number2-3
Publication statusPublished - Feb 10 2012


  • Addiction
  • Brain vulnerability
  • Insula
  • MRI
  • Voxel based morphometry

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Neuroscience(all)


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