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Treating Alcohol Abuse with a Reward-Based Treatment

Lisa Taylor
Lisa TaylorAddiction Counsellor

Western medicine has been looking for effective ways to treat alcohol abuse and dependence for nearly 100 years. From the earliest days of Alcoholics Anonymous, we have come to recognise that alcohol-related problems are terribly complex problems requiring equally complex solutions. So every time new research suggests another option for treating alcohol abusers, it is worth serious consideration.

The latest research suggests treating alcohol abuse with a reward-based treatment that counteracts the rewards of alcohol consumption. The research comes out of Washington State University (USA). Researchers there studied a subset of the Seattle population known to have significant mental illness, a group of people whose life expectancy is up to 25 years shorter due to the effects of mental illness.

The study used a reward-based intervention programme to treat alcohol abusers within that group by rewarding them for attending treatment programmes and providing urine samples that tested negative for alcohol use. Patients who demonstrated positive results were rewarded with a variety of things from shampoo and soap to gift cards and electronics.

Lead researcher Doctor Michael McDonnell said that researching alcohol treatment coincidental with mental illness was appropriate because "about 12% of those with mental illness who abuse alcohol get treatment for both conditions simultaneously."

Surprising and Encouraging Results

Though the effectiveness of a reward-based treatment for alcohol abuse has not been conclusively proved, the researchers were very pleasantly surprised by the results. Roughly half of their patients participated in the 12-week rewards-based programme while the other half acted as the control group.

Those in the reward group turned out to be three times less likely to test positive for alcohol use than their control group counterparts. Researchers say their reduced alcohol consumption persisted throughout the 12-week treatment and three-month follow-up. As an added bonus, researchers were surprised to learn that the same participants who reduced alcohol consumption also reduced their use of tobacco.

Where to Go Next

Researchers are obviously thrilled to learn that a reward-based treatment programme may be helpful for alcohol and drug abuse. But more conclusive results are necessary in order to move forward. To that end, researchers are now working with native Alaskan and American Indian populations to see if reward-based treatments will work in their communities. Both groups were chosen due to the abnormally high tendency for alcohol abuse in their populations.

If it turns out that rewards-based treatment works for significant numbers of alcohol and drug abusers, it will mean yet another tool doctors and therapists can use in addressing substance abuse. Obviously, it's not expected that rewards-based treatment will work for every patient who tries it. But no single treatment works for every substance abuser.

Hopefully, researchers will gain more conclusive evidence as a result of their work with the Native American and Alaskan populations. It would be wonderful to know that some people can be led to sobriety with something as simple as rewarding them for making the right choices.


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