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Using rewards to treat alcohol abuse

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By Judith Van Dongen of WSU Spokane
WSU researchers have shown that offering prizes can be an effective, low-cost treatment for alcohol abuse, the nation’s third leading preventable cause of death. Findings from the NIH-funded study, which appeared in the American Journal of Psychiatry, could expand treatment options for an estimated 15 million U.S. adults who abuse alcohol.

Conducted in collaboration with the University of Washington, the study followed 79 participants with serious mental illness at a Seattle-area community mental health center. About half received a 12-week reward-based intervention known as contingency management, which offered prize drawings for addiction treatment attendance and negative urine alcohol test results. The other half were in a control group that was allowed to draw prizes regardless of test results and treatment attendance. Prizes varied from necessities such as shampoo, soap, clothing, and gift cards to $100 DVD players, microwaves, and digital media players.

Results showed that reward group participants were three times less likely to test positive for alcohol use than control participants, which persisted throughout the study’s three-month follow-up period. Surprisingly, they also had reduced tobacco and cocaine use.

“Our findings suggest that contingency management is a feasible approach for people with alcohol problems and may be particularly effective in those with serious mental illness, a high-cost and difficult-to-engage population,” said lead investigator Michael McDonell, Ph.D., an associate professor in the Elson S. Floyd College of Medicine.

He said the intervention requires little investment or training and could be administered anywhere. It could help streamline care for those with mental illness who abuse alcohol—most  of whom typically receive separate treatments—as well as increase addiction treatment access in rural areas and low-resource settings.

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