Differences in associative learning between light and heavy drinkers

First published: 10/05/2019 | Last updated: May 20th, 2019

Cue-Exposure Therapy (CET) is a behavioural modification treatment which attempts to weaken cravings and reduce relapse through extinction of responses to alcohol cues. CET is a very successful treatment for other psychiatric disorders with similar Pavlovian conditioning aetiology e.g. anxiety and binge eating disorders. However, CET has thus far not been demonstrated to be effective in treating alcohol dependence. This may be due to maladaptations in Pavlovian conditioning mechanisms between light and heavy drinkers. The aim of this study was to investigate Pavlovian conditioning mechanisms in a sample of light and heavy social drinkers. It was hypothesised the heavier drinkers would have slower rates of extinction of cue-outcome associations compared to the lighter drinkers. The participants were 74 undergraduate social drinkers from the University of Southampton. The experiment was a single 40 minute session consisting of questionnaires (AUDIT-C, TLFB and BIS-11) and computer task. The computer task was used to study human learning. It was a simple game in the participants learned to predict which objects predict a red or green flash on the screen. The results showed there was no statistically significant difference between groups in rates of extinction, however there was a trend towards heavier drinkers having impaired extinction. In conclusion, there is no significant difference between light and heavy social drinkers in their ability to extinguish learned associations. However, it is possible a greater difference in conditioning mechanisms would only be detectable between social drinkers and alcohol-dependent groups resulting from their differences in drinking history.Cue-Exposure Therapy (CET) is a behavioural modification treatment which attempts to weaken cravings and reduce relapse through extinction of responses to alcohol cues. CET is a very successful treatment for other psychiatric disorders with similar Pavlovian conditioning aetiology e.g. anxiety and binge eating disorders. However, CET has thus far not been demonstrated to be effective in treating alcohol dependence. This may be due to maladaptations in Pavlovian conditioning mechanisms between light and heavy drinkers. The aim of this study was to investigate Pavlovian conditioning mechanisms in a sample of light and heavy social drinkers. It was hypothesised the heavier drinkers would have slower rates of extinction of cue-outcome associations compared to the lighter drinkers. The participants were 74 undergraduate social drinkers from the University of Southampton. The experiment was a single 40 minute session consisting of questionnaires (AUDIT-C, TLFB and BIS-11) and computer task. The computer task was used to study human learning. It was a simple game in the participants learned to predict which objects predict a red or green flash on the screen. The results showed there was no statistically significant difference between groups in rates of extinction, however there was a trend towards heavier drinkers having impaired extinction. In conclusion, there is no significant difference between light and heavy social drinkers in their ability to extinguish learned associations. However, it is possible a greater difference in conditioning mechanisms would only be detectable between social drinkers and alcohol-dependent groups resulting from their differences in drinking history.

Co-Authors

Dr. Julia Sinclair, Associate Professor in Psychiatry, Honorary Consultant in Alcohol Liaison, Trustee of the SSA Dr. Steven Glauiter, Associate Professor in Psychology, University of Southampton


Conflicts of interest:

Funding Sources: University of Southampton

There are no conflict of interests

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Mr Carl Buckfield