Heavy Drinkers Helped by Computer

Researchers say they have created a new training technique which can help hard drinkers ignore alcohol. The computer programme at the University of Wales, Bangor, helps excessive drinkers become less distracted by stimuli such as photos of drinks and alcohol on display in shops. Psychologists said those tested cut down significantly and felt more in control after taking part. It is hoped the programme could eventually be accessed online.

Heavy drinkers tested with the newly-developed Alcohol Attention-Control Training Programme (AACTP) also maintained the improvement three months after their initial sessions.

Professor Miles Cox, based at the psychology department at Bangor, said excessive drinkers unconsciously paid too much attention to alcohol in their everyday lives.

These ranged from pictures of alcohol to bottles of alcohol in the local off-licence window or on the shelves of a supermarket. “When excessive drinkers encounter drink-related stimuli, this activates automatic thought processes which stimulate them to want a drink and to actually take a drink,” he said.

“Hence the simple consequence of helping excessive drinkers pay less attention to alcohol in their environment is that they gain more confidence in their ability to control their own behaviour, and then they drink less.”

Prof Cox said AACTP was now a “tried and tested training programme” which could improve treatment for alcohol problems.

“AACTP is also a highly accessible tool in that it will eventually offer excessive drinkers the opportunity to participate in this training in their own home over the internet,” he added.

“After additional research, we hope the health service will begin using the programme.”

A new study will test AACTP on 250 people. The original tests involved around 100 people.

The program developed by Prof Cox and Dr Javad Fadardi is based on goal-setting techniques with immediate feedback. For example, an alcoholic drink appears on the computer screen surrounded by a colour. The participant must then identify the colour as quickly as possible, while ignoring the drink.

“This training causes people to become faster at ignoring alcoholic stimuli,” said Prof Cox.

He said over a course of four sessions, excessive drinkers showed “significant reductions” in the attention they gave to alcohol and it led to lower alcohol consumption. Participants were also tested on their ability to deal with different drinking situations and their emotional states.

The work was funded by the Economic and Social Research Council.