Removing Punishments May Bring Alcoholics Back To Their Habit
January 31, 2013

Alcoholic Rats Return To Their Bad Habit After Punishments Are Removed

Alan McStravick for - Your Universe Online

When alcohol use becomes problematic, many people will seek help from family, doctors and support groups. The grip of alcoholism, however, can be a burden too heavy to bear. For people whose alcohol use continues, there is an inevitable point at which consequences will be experienced. These punishment-related threats are an excellent motivation for someone to stop drinking. Whether it is the threat of separation or divorce, potential job loss, or societal punishment, like incarceration or loss of license, someone who has an affinity for alcohol can be convinced to curtail their destructive habit or even stop it altogether.

Researchers at the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) have released a new study detailing how, when the punishment-related threats are removed, an alcoholic may relapse. This is especially true if the individual places themselves in an environment that is conducive to drinking.

The NIDA´s study used rat subjects which they believe suggests the behavior is mimicked in these smaller mammals. The significance of this study is important because animals are often used in the study of addiction before findings are translated to work in humans.

"The better our animal models fit human alcoholism, the more our animal research will help us to understand the complexity of the human disorder and to develop new treatments," commented Dr. John Krystal, Editor of Biological Psychiatry.

Most previous studies focused on the achievement of alcohol abstinence in animals. The techniques most commonly used were forced abstinence and/or extinction training. Extinction training typically utilizes a lever that, when depressed, would no longer deliver alcohol to the subject as it once had. These methods have their limitations, however. Primarily, this is because it is difficult to mimic a human´s desire to limit or stop drinking due to the threat of negative consequences.

Nathan Marchant and his colleagues developed a rat relapse model that incorporated punishment to yield a voluntary decrease in alcohol intake. The punishments were administered in an environment that was different from the original alcohol intake environment.

The researchers found, upon re-introducing the rat to the original alcohol self-administration environment, the rats immediately relapsed to their behaviors of alcohol seeking. This occurred even after the rats experienced the punishment that eventually led to their suppression of alcohol intake.

"A potential clinical implication of this preclinical finding is that abstinence induced by introducing adverse consequences on alcohol intake in inpatient treatment clinics would have a limited effect on subsequent alcohol use in the home environment after completion of treatment," commented Marchant.

This study, rather than being an end to study on addiction, actually opens up a larger field of questions. What is the potential influence of medication or other manipulations on this model? Would the model hold up when other drugs or even food were studied? Would the results have been different if a longer passage of time occurred before re-introducing the rats to the alcohol environment? The research team, along with other addiction-focused groups will certainly undertake further study to answer these and other addiction related questions.