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Self-awareness of problematic drug use: Preliminary validation of a new fMRI task to assess underlying neurocircuitry

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Multiple psychopathologies feature impaired clinical insight. Emerging evidence suggests that insight problems may similarly characterize addiction, perhaps due to aberrant functioning of self-referential brain circuitry, including the rostral anterior cingulate and ventromedial prefrontal cortices (rACC/vmPFC). We developed a new fMRI task to probe whether rACC/vmPFC abnormalities in cocaine use disorder (CUD) constitute neural correlates of readiness to change, one facet of insight.


Eighteen individuals with current CUD and 15 healthy controls responded about their own need to change their drug use and eating behavior (control condition) and the need for a named acquaintance to do the same (two additional control conditions). Measures of simulated drug-choice behavior, addiction severity, and neuropsychological function were collected outside the scanner.


CUD participants perceived a greater need for behavior change than controls (as expected, given their diagnosis), but fell short of "agreeing" to a need for change; in CUD, lower perceived need correlated with higher simulated drug-choice behavior, a proxy measure of drug-seeking. During drug-related insight judgments, CUD participants had higher activation than controls in an anatomically-defined region of interest (ROI) in the medial orbitofrontal cortex, part of the rACC/vmPFC. Although not showing group differences, activation in an anatomically-defined ACC ROI correlated with insight-related task behavior (in all participants) and memory performance (in CUD).


As a group, individuals with current CUD appear to show mild insight problems and rACC/vmPFC abnormalities vis-à-vis readiness to change behavior. With replication and extension of these results, insight-related circuitry may emerge as a novel therapeutic target.

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