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Alcohol Dependent Individuals Struggle to Learn Skills For Recovery

Posted in Research

Those who complete alcohol dependence treatment in a substance abuse treatment program often relapse. During treatment, they are often taught new tools for dealing with stress and other cues that previously resulted in drinking alcohol. However, the tools taught in treatment are sometimes not effective once the patient re-enters real-life situations.

Researchers from Ruhr University Bochum in Germany examined the ability of alcohol dependent individuals to integrate new reactions to alcohol-related cues. Their work will appear in an upcoming issue of Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research and is available now at Early View.

The researchers looked at how changes in the brain affected by the chronic consumption of alcohol impacted the brain’s ability to learn reward-related contingencies and use them in new contexts.

Martina Rustemeier, corresponding author for the study, explained that the breakdown discovered in applying new tools to drinking cues often leads to relapse. While those with alcohol dependency are aware of the consequences to relationships and professional achievement that are tied to alcohol dependency, they still struggle to change their behaviors.

Those who complete treatment programs leave with tools to cope with everyday problems that can lead to drinking. During the program, they are expected to learn the tools and then apply them when they deal with life situations. However, they are not always successful.

The researchers attempted to analyze the components of the process to understand where the breakdown exists in helping those with alcohol dependence apply the tools learned in treatment.

The researchers administered a feedback-learning exercise task centered on monetary rewards to 24 individuals who had recently completed a detoxification program. The participants were comprised of 19 men and 5 women. The exercise was designed to measure learning performance, associations among learning variables, depression, personality traits, transfer performance and individual learning bias.

The researchers found that the participants exhibited no difficulty in learning new information, but faced significant challenges when tasked to apply the acquired information into a new setting.

The researchers believe that the study provides helpful information for individuals who have completed treatment and are learning to re-enter life situations. Those who provide treatment programs may need to help alcohol dependent individuals learn how to prepare in advance for new situations.

Family members may need to be recruited to provide support in preparing for situations and determining how the tools learned in recovery programs might be applied. Alcohol dependent individuals should view each situation as a new challenge in which they may not be able to automatically rely on a specific tool to navigate, but instead use their newly acquired tools in a flexible way.

The study provides information helpful in understanding the challenges posed to those who complete rehabilitation, only to fall into relapse soon after recovery.