Background. In a number of theories of compulsive drug use conditioned responses to stimuli
associated with drug taking play a pivotal role. For example, according to incentive-sensitization
theory (Robinson & Berridge, 1993), drug-related stimuli selectively capture attention, and the
neural mechanisms underlying this attentional bias play a key role in the development and
maintenance of drug dependence, and in relapse. However, there has been little work that assesses
attentional biases in addiction.
Methods. We used a pictorial probe detection task to investigate whether there is an attentional bias
to stimuli associated with drug use in opiate dependence. Stimuli presented included pairs of drug-related and matched neutral pictures. Methadone-maintained opiate addicts (N = 16) were
compared with age-matched controls (N = 16).
Results. A mixed design analysis of variance of response times to probes revealed a significant three-way interaction of group×drug picture location×probe location. Opiate addicts had relatively
faster reaction times to probes that replaced drug pictures rather than neutral pictures, consistent
with the predicted attentional bias to drug-related stimuli.
Conclusions. These results support the idea that an attentional bias for drug-related stimuli occurs
in opiate dependence. This is consistent with the concept of a central role for such salient stimuli
in compulsive drug use.