Turning Point researchers develop smartphone app to help reduce alcohol cravings and consumption

28 Aug 2020

Researchers from Turning Point and Monash University are trialling a new smartphone app they have developed called ‘SWIPE’ which aims to help people reduce their alcohol cravings and consumption.

The app uses ‘approach bias modification’ (ABM), a computerised cognitive training intervention that teaches the brain to ‘avoid’ alcohol-related images and ‘approach’ neutral or positive ones.

ABM has been shown to reduce alcohol cravings and consumption among people receiving residential withdrawal or rehabilitation treatment. However, for those who don’t require treatment but may drink at harmful levels, a smartphone app could offer these same benefits, whilst also being cost-effective and convenient. 

Research shows that regular and frequent drinking can affect the brain's reward system and how it anticipates and values drinking. Over time, cues that remind us of alcohol tend to more easily capture our attention and make us want to ‘seek out’ and drink alcohol. This is known as a ‘cognitive bias’. Alcohol-related cues, including social situations, sounds, smells and advertisements can subconsciously trigger an ‘auto-pilot’ response, which can increase our urge to drink.

The SWIPE app aims to interrupt these automatic responses to cues, by training users to avoid or ‘push away’ alcohol-related images and approach healthier alternatives by pulling positive, non-alcohol images towards them. Users are able to personalise their experience by uploading their own images of the drinks or brands that they want to avoid, or select from pre-set images. At the same time, they can upload or select images that relate to their personal goals or activities they enjoy, to reinforce their reasons for changing their drinking behaviour. 

Associate Professor Victoria Manning who has led the development of the app says, “We know from our previous research that just a few short sessions of ABM can reduce a person’s alcohol approach bias and reduce the chances of them drinking after leaving treatment.”

Researchers aim to test the feasibility and acceptability of SWIPE by recruiting 500 people who currently drink at harmful levels and wish to reduce their drinking. Participants will need to complete at least two ABM sessions per week for four weeks. 

The advantages of the app are that anyone with a smartphone can participate in ABM and it is accessible at any time and from any location. This is particularly important during the current pandemic with many more people struggling with alcohol, and tele-health interventions increasing in popularity.

SWIPE has the potential to benefit a large number of people who drink at harmful levels by offering a personalised, convenient, anonymous and easy to use intervention to help reduce alcohol consumption, at times when help is most needed.

More information

For more information about the SWIPE trial, please visit https://www.swipe-app.com.au/

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