Brain-training helps prevent relapse after alcohol treatment

alcohol and drug issues

A new study published in JAMA Psychiatry has shown that using a new form of computerised brain training, Cognitive Bias Modification (CBM), can aid in the prevention of alcohol relapse after treatment.

Led by researchers from Turning Point, Monash University and Deakin University, the study has resulted in the development of a CBM app called, ‘SWiPE’, where people can upload alcoholic beverages or brands they wish to train their subconscious brain to avoid, while at the same time ‘approaching’ images of more positive, healthy activities they want to do more of.

A focus on training the brain to automatically avoid alcohol cues through CBM, while focusing on positive, healthy cues helps to reduce alcohol relapse – the study revealed that alcohol relapse was reduced by 17% after four sessions of CBM compared to those who received the placebo version of the task.

“Preventing relapse in the period following alcohol detox is really important because that is when people engage in psychological treatments and peer support groups that have shown to help people recover from alcohol problems,” says Associate Professor Victoria Manning, Head of Research and Workforce Development, Turning Point and Associate Professor in Addiction Studies, Monash University.

“A lot of the time, people wanting to quit or take a break from alcohol experience a form of internal conflict – they know it’s important not to drink, but at the same time, they really want to have a drink”.

While our conscious brain allows us to focus on the benefits of not drinking alcohol when we want to cut down or stop, our subconscious brain, which typically focuses on the perceived benefits of having a drink such helping you feel better or relax, wins the battle.

And this is where CBM comes in – training the brain to focus on the benefits of not drinking.

“Being easy-to-implement, safe and requiring only a laptop and joystick, we’d love to see CBM routinely offered as an adjunctive intervention during inpatient withdrawal, to optimise patient outcomes,” says Associate Professor Manning.

“We know only a small percentage of people with alcohol problems seek treatment.

“Therefore, having low-cost, widely-available and evidence-based interventions available outside of traditional treatment settings will mean more people have access to anonymous and convenient, easy-to-use support tools when they most need them.”

The team is currently examining SWiPE’s feasibility, acceptability and effectiveness at reducing alcohol consumption and cravings and preliminary findings suggest app-delivered CBM is also looking very promising.

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