The overall goal of the proposed project is to improve the care of Veterans who consume alcohol at heavy and unhealthy levels. Heavy alcohol use is highly prevalent among military Veterans, related to many other mental health and chronic medical conditions, contributes to high-risk behaviors such as violence and suicide, and is a leading preventable cause of morbidity and mortality. A tendency to automatically approach alcohol has been identified in heavy drinking students and European in-patient populations. This alcohol approach-bias contributes to continued alcohol use despite an explicit desire to quit. Alcohol approach-bias modification (AABM), a cognitive training program has been shown to remediate alcohol approach-bias and reduce alcohol relapse rates. However, we currently do not know the extent of alcohol approach-bias related neural activity in heavy drinking Veterans with highly prevalent comorbid conditions (i.e., PTSD and mild traumatic brain injury), or the extent to which these Veterans will respond to AABM training. Additionally, the mechanisms of functional connectivity in alcohol approach-bias reward neural circuitry remain largely unknown. Therefore, the proposed CSR&D CDA-2 seeks to fill these gaps by conducting a longitudinal observational study designed to evaluate the neural associations of alcohol approach-bias and AABM training. The research study has three overarching aims:
Aim 1 : To investigate neural activation and connectivity during an alcohol approach-avoidance task and an alcohol cue-reactivity task;
Aim 2 : To investigate neural change following AABM training;
Aim 3 : To measure and investigate neural, cognitive, and psychiatric predictors of behavioral response to AABM training. To test these aims, 50 heavy drinking Veterans and 20 healthy light/non-drinking Veteran controls will be recruited from the San Francisco Veterans Affairs Medical Center and affiliated clinics. We will compare baseline neural and behavioral characteristics between these two groups. Heavy drinking Veterans will then complete 3 weeks (9 sessions) of AABM training. Following training, heavy drinking Veterans will repeat the neural and behavioral assessments completed at baseline. Heavy drinking Veterans will also complete a follow-up assessment at 3 months post-baseline to evaluate sustained behavioral change (e.g., reduced alcohol use). The proposed work will directly harness the neuroanatomical precision and spatial resolution of functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) data. The proposed CDA-2 will be the first to: 1) investigate the underlying neural and cognitive mechanisms of alcohol approach-bias in a population of heavy drinking Veterans, 2) examine functional connectivity during an alcohol approach-avoidance task, 3) investigate the extent to which both fMRI activation and connectivity data predict response to AABM, 4) investigate the extent to which neurocognitive and psychiatric symptoms common in heavy drinking Veterans predict behavioral change following AABM. Findings from the proposed project are expected to improve the care of Veterans with heavy and unhealthy alcohol use, and by extension, aid families and communities affected by the sequelae of these problems. Moreover, treatments that help Veterans with unhealthy alcohol use are also likely to be applicable to the general population of individuals with these problems.
The proposed CDA-2 will provide Dr. Pennington with the training, expertise and data to advance research aimed at improving mental health treatment among Veterans. The project will examine the neural associations of alcohol approach-bias and investigate the extent to which a neuroscience-based cognitive training program will remediate alcohol approach-bias and improve recovery outcomes among heavy drinking Veterans. Modification of alcohol approach-bias and reductions in heavy alcohol use can be expected to reduce behaviors of self-harm and violence, increase adherence to medical care and reduce drinking related medical costs, and promote healthier relationships. The successful completion of this project will also result in a broadened knowledge of cognitive processes and neural substrates underlying heavy drinking not previously studied in a Veteran population. Additionally, the evidence garnered from this study can be used to inform the development of other behavioral and pharmacological treatments for Veterans with AUD.