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Study Examines Connection Between Cravings and Attentional Bias

Individuals who complete treatment for alcohol addiction are often trained through therapy to use skills designed to help them learn new responses to cues associated with alcohol. Some recovered alcoholics are able to utilize the new tools for staying sober, while others relapse back into drinking.

Understanding why some drinkers are successful with learning new responses to alcohol-related cues and others are not may help identify recovering alcoholics who are most likely to struggle with relapse.

A study conducted by Matt Field at the University of Liverpool was designed to provide new information about attentional bias, which is the focusing of attention on a specific cue, and alcohol addiction. The tool used to measure attentional bias is called the Stroop task.

Field used the Stroop task to test attentional bias among 26 individuals identified as social drinkers and 28 who had recently finished treatment for alcohol addiction on an outpatient basis. In his study, Field decided to examine whether the intensity of the cravings that were shown by the alcoholic participants would have an impact on their bias level in the Stroop task.

The participants engaged in three visual probe experiments, each a different length, in addition to the alcohol Stroop task. They were asked to give information about their levels of cravings and dependency related to alcohol.

The tasks showed that the participants with a history of alcohol addiction, despite their recent abstinence, showed significantly more bias when exposed to alcohol-related cues compared with the participants who were social drinkers.

The results from the visual tasks indicated that their craving level was directly related to bias. Those who had recently finished alcohol addiction treatment and had an increased level of craving were also those who had the highest levels of bias. Those with a low craving for alcohol among both social drinkers and alcohol addicted participants also had a lower bias.

Field noted that some of the participants who had come from alcohol addiction treatment had not completed the treatment. This was due to an intense craving for alcohol and a severe level of dependency.

While there has been extensive study conducted in the area of addiction and bias, this is the first study to compare the two among social drinkers and alcoholics. Field included social drinkers in his study instead of nondrinkers because he wanted to eliminate the possibility that alcohol-related cues might be novel to nondrinkers.

However, Field notes that further research may benefit from the inclusion of nondrinkers into the comparison by providing additional information about the ways bias and cravings are connected.

The results of the study appear in a recent online publication of the journal Psychology of Addictive Behaviors.

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