Can a “brain training” app help you quit alcohol?

15 Feb 2024

Researchers are investigating a new smartphone app to see if it can help people reduce their alcohol cravings and consumption.


When Alison realised that she was drinking 14 times the recommended amount each week, she decided it was time to quit alcohol.

But it wasn’t easy.

“I’d watch a movie, and it felt like everyone was drinking,” Alison said. “Alcohol imagery or company sponsorship seemed to be everywhere.”

According to Professor Victoria Manning, the lead researcher of a team investigating a brain training app to help people reduce their drinking, one of the reasons that people find it so difficult to cut back or stop their alcohol intake is because of the subconscious processes that influence our decision-making and behaviours.

“These autopilot responses to alcohol cues can trigger the impulse to drink,” Professor Manning said. “They occur as a result of cognitive biases.”

In order to reduce these cognitive biases toward alcohol cues, the team of researchers from Turning Point, Monash University and Deakin University are investigating a new brain-training smartphone app.

The team is examining whether it can reduce people’s automatic responses to images of alcohol and, in turn, help reduce their alcohol cravings and consumption.

With approximately 90 percent of Australians owning smartphones, an app like this could deliver widely accessible alcohol use interventions, if the researchers find it to be effective.

Past successes of brain training

“Research has consistently shown that the type of training in the app can help prevent relapse in people coming out of residential treatment,” said Dr Joshua Garfield, one of the team's chief investigators.

“We are now looking to find out whether it is effective when delivered in an app to people who are not accessing treatment,” he said.

The team's previous research showed that users found the app easy to use and were positive about the experience.

As one of the people who downloaded and tested a beta version of the app, Alison is also positive about her experience.

“I liked the idea of gamifying my craving moments and desensitising myself to the presence of alcohol in the world around me,” she said.

Gamification draws on the techniques that are usually found in games – such as winning a competition or achieving an end goal – to attract and maintain people’s interest in the activity.

Next stages of the investigation

“Now that we know people valued using the app, our next stage is to find out how effective it is,” Dr Garfield said.

The current trial will compare different versions of the app to test whether the brain training can help people who want to reduce or stop drinking, but who are not seeking treatment.

If found to be effective, the app could be a useful tool for anyone seeking to combat the effects of our brain’s autopilot responses to images, thoughts, and places that trigger an impulse to drink.

Anyone over 18 years old who is trying to reduce their alcohol consumption is invited to complete a survey to assess their eligibility to participate in the study.

You can read more about the study here.

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