Virginia Tech researchers studying a new intervention in treating people suffering from alcoholism

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Fralin Biomedical Research Institute at VTC scientists led by Warren Bickel (left) and Stephen LaConte have received a $3.45 million National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism of the National Institutes of Health grant to study a new approach to understand the decision-making of alcohol use and abuse. (Picture: Courtesy Virginia Tech)

BLACKSBURG, Va. (WFXR) — Scientists at Virginia Tech have been rewarded a $3.45 million grant from the National Institutes of Health to research another method for treating people who suffer from alcohol use disorder or alcoholism.

Researchers have launched a study using behavior analysis, an in-laboratory drinking situation, neuroimaging, and computational modeling to understand the decisionmaking process for people with the disorder, according to a press statement from Virginia Tech (VT).

The research is being led by Warren Bickel, a professor at the Fralin Biomedical Research Institute at VTC, and Stephen LaConte, an associate professor at the Fralin Biomedical Research Institute and an expert in advanced neuroimaging.

“People who have problems with alcohol have a decision-making process focused on immediate outcomes, and they make choices that aren’t very healthy for them,” said Bickel.

The purpose of the study is “to explore ways for people to mentally construct how they will feel at future events, and this lowers the value they place on alcohol,” he said.

Study volunteers will participate in a bar scenario where they “self administer” alcohol, according to VT.

Researchers will introduce the participants with an intervention “that applies a reinforcer called episodic future thinking to get people to concretely think about future events that will influence their immediate decisions,” according to VT.

The study has a neuroimaging component called functional magnetic resonance imaging that looks at part of the brain triggered during risky decision-making, according to the university statement.

“In a large time-frame, long-term behavior reinforcers, such as building relationships with loved ones, gain influence while the immediate value of alcohol reinforcement decreases,” according to VT. “In episodic future thinking, research volunteers describe upcoming events in their lives, and talk about what they are going to see, hear, feel, smell, and feel. Then, like a story, they put a title on it.”

“If someone said a month from now I’m going to go to my nephew’s birthday party, we would text them reminders, ‘Nephew’s Birthday Party,'” Bickel said. “It worked. People who were drinking an average of six beverages a day cut their consumption nearly in half, only because we were texting them with the titles they wrote for themselves during episodic future thinking.”

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