Computer Program Helps Reduce Drinking

By training users to deprioritize alcohol-related stimuli, the program helps abusers of alcohol learn to drink less, researchers say.

Having created a computer program that seems to help excessive drinkers reduce their intake, researchers said they hope to offer the program for alcoholics to use at home or over the Internet.

In a study released July 21, researchers at the University of Wales, Bangor, found that three months after going through the Alcohol Attention-Control Training Program, alcohol abusers drank less, paid less attention to alcohol and felt more in control of their drinking.

Computer programs are being assessed in multiple institutions for a variety of public health purposes, like patient education or monitoring cognitive ability in dementia patients.

The program described in the study helps alcohol abusers pay less attention to alcohol stimuli. In one training regime, an alcoholic and nonalcoholic drink are shown on a computer screen, each surrounded by a different color. The participant must then identify the color surrounding the nonalcoholic bottle as quickly as possible.

Participants who drank heavily had more difficulty with this task, but became faster over time as they learned to ignore the alcohol stimulus.

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"Over a course of four sessions, our sample of excessive drinkers showed significant reductions in their attentional focus on alcohol, which translated into lower alcohol consumption," said Miles Cox, one of the researchers who conducted the study.

"Excessive drinkers unconsciously pay too much attention to the alcohol-related stimuli that surround us all," Cox said. "When excessive drinkers encounter drink-related stimuli, this activates automatic thought processes that stimulate them to want a drink and to actually take a drink."

The researchers said they hope to offer the program to a wider scope of people. The reasoning is that such training will help people avoid alcohol when tempted by advertisements or sales displays.

The study examined 220 people identified as social drinkers, heavy drinkers and excessive drinkers. Those who drank the most were the most likely to be distracted by alcohol-related stimuli.

Fifty excessive drinkers (consuming an average of 72 alcohol units a week) took four training sessions over one month. These drinkers reported reduced consumption of alcohol, a state that was continued over the course of a three-month follow-up period.

However, the researchers said the program they developed will probably not work to stop alcohol abuse by itself because alcohol abusers need to develop new habits and hobbies to fill the parts of their lives formerly occupied by alcohol.

The research project was funded by the ESRC (Economic and Social Research Council).

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