Right Place + Right Time Can Trigger Drinking

New study published in Biological Psychiatry

Philadelphia, PA, July 29, 2008 – Strong cravings for alcohol can be sparked by the mere sight, smell and taste of a person’s favorite drink. Responses to such cues that are associated with the positive effects of drinking are a lead cause of relapse in abstinent alcoholics. Using a behavioral animal model, researchers of a new study, scheduled for publication in the August 1st issue of Biological Psychiatry, have found that the physical surroundings where alcohol cues are experienced can greatly influence the ability of those cues to trigger relapse.

Specifically, Chaudhri and colleagues taught rats to learn that a brief tone signaled when a small amount of alcohol would be available in a fluid receptacle for them to drink. This learning occurred in a distinctive environment consisting of a particular appearance, smell, and lighting. They were then put into a second, unique context with a different appearance, smell, and lighting, and were repeatedly exposed to the tone but never given alcohol. After several sessions in this new context, the rats gradually learned that the tone no longer predicted alcohol and consequently stopped checking the fluid receptacle. However, upon re-exposure to the original context where alcohol was available, presentation of the tone once again caused the rats to immediately check for it. “This finding demonstrates the power of environments to trigger relapse to alcohol-seeking in response to alcohol-predictive cues,“ said lead author Nadia Chaudhri, Ph. D., with the Ernest Gallo Clinic and Research Center at UCSF. “This effect is highly detrimental to humans who are trying to abstain from drinking.”

Additionally, the authors also found that the capacity of an alcohol-associated context to trigger relapse to alcohol cues can be greatly diminished by presenting the cues repeatedly in multiple distinct contexts without alcohol. If used in the clinic, this technique of extinguishing responses to alcohol cues in multiple contexts could greatly increase the efficacy of current behavioral treatments for alcoholism. John H. Krystal, M.D., Editor of Biological Psychiatry and affiliated with both Yale University School of Medicine and the VA Connecticut Healthcare System, further elaborates on this idea, commenting that “it is possible that exposure-based therapies could occur in a broader range of contexts so as to enhance their effectiveness. These contexts could be real, i.e., visiting bars or liquor stores, could be created using virtual reality techniques, or could simply be recreated by patients as they imagined visiting places that triggered their urges to drink.” Additional research will clearly need to be undertaken to determine the effectiveness of such a technique, but these findings indicate that it may a promising addition to addiction therapies.


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Notes to Editors
The article is “Context-Induced Relapse of Conditioned Behavioral Responding to Ethanol Cues in Rats” by Nadia Chaudhri, Lacey L. Sahuque, and Patricia H. Janak.

The authors are all affiliated with the Ernest Gallo Clinic and Research Center, University of California at San Francisco, Emeryville, California. Dr. Janak is also with the Department of Neurology and the Wheeler Center for the Neurobiology of Addiction at the University of California at San Francisco, San Francisco, California. The article appears in Biological Psychiatry, Volume 64, Issue 3 (August 1, 2008), published by Elsevier.

The authors’ disclosures of financial and conflicts of interests are available in the article. Dr. Krystal's disclosures of financial and conflicts of interests are available here.

Full text of the article mentioned above is available upon request. Contact Jayne M. Dawkins at (215) 239-3674 or ja.dawkins@elsevier.com to obtain a copy or to schedule an interview.

About Biological Psychiatry
This international rapid-publication journal is the official journal of the Society of Biological Psychiatry. It covers a broad range of topics in psychiatric neuroscience and therapeutics. Both basic and clinical contributions are encouraged from all disciplines and research areas relevant to the pathophysiology and treatment of major neuropsychiatric disorders. Full-length and Brief Reports of novel results, Commentaries, Case Studies of unusual significance, and Correspondence and Comments judged to be of high impact to the field are published, particularly those addressing genetic and environmental risk factors, neural circuitry and neurochemistry, and important new therapeutic approaches. Concise Reviews and Editorials that focus on topics of current research and interest are also published rapidly.

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