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Study of new treatments for alcoholism receives $2.3 million NIH grant

October 8, 2014

Indiana University Bloomington clinical psychologist Peter Finn has received a $2.3 million grant from the National Institutes of Health to study the use of cognitive training techniques to reduce risky or impulsive decision-making in those with early-onset alcoholism and a history of impulsive, antisocial behavior.

The study will focus on the role of working memory in decision-making related to alcohol consumption and on determining whether cognitive training, which consists of methods for focusing one’s attention, can improve working memory and thereby enhance decision-making abilities.

“Working memory reflects a kind of memory-attention interaction, which enables us to control our attention, to focus on a particular topic, shift our attention away and shift it back at will,” says Finn, professor in the Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences in the College of Arts and Sciences. “Our work shows that there’s a common vulnerability to substance use disorders, ADHD, and antisocial personality disorder. All are associated with similar problems with impulsive and risky decision-making and a low working memory capacity.”

In recent years, cognitive training techniques have become widely used as interventions for a variety of psychiatric conditions such as ADHD, obsessive-compulsive disorder, antisocial personality, memory loss, and major depression. Yet little well-controlled research has been done to support its effectiveness, Finn says.

The new study is not a clinical trial, but Finn says it has enormous potential to affect future treatment.

“It will also have direct implications for the development and refinement of training programs to focus attention, modify impulsive, risky decision-making in those with alcohol dependence and externalizing psychopathology in general, and for understanding the factors that may predict the positive impact of these programs on impulsivity in those with alcohol dependence and antisocial behavior in general,” he says.

Looking at three different groups, Finn and members of his lab will set out to better understand and assess the usefulness of these cognitive training techniques. Two of the groups include young adults whose alcohol abuse began before age 20. In one of these two groups are people who also have a history of impulsive, antisocial behavior, who as children frequently got into trouble and have broken the law as adults. A third group consists of individuals with no history of substance abuse or antisocial behavior.

The first part of the study examines the effect of an attentional refocusing technique on working memory capacity and risky decision-making. The second will investigate the effect of a working memory training program on working memory capacity and decision-making.

The study also has important implications for the problem of relapse in alcoholism, which often occurs in times of stress, and can reduce working memory capacity even further. Average people generally make riskier and more impulsive decisions when their working memory is compromised as a result of stress, information overload, high or low emotional states, or other factors, Finn says.

“But for people with low working memory capacity, who are already making bad decisions, when you put them under a cognitive load (of stress, etc.), their decisions can have catastrophic negative consequences,” he says.