Learned associations between alcohol and the people, places and paraphernalia (cues) surrounding alcohol drinking represent a major barrier to the successful treatment of alcohol dependence;these associations are remarkably persistent, despite efforts to extinguish them, and can trigger alcohol craving and relapse even after long periods of abstinence. Thus, associations between alcohol and alcohol cues constitute a unique target for treatment but there is little clinical evidence of how the associations are formed, and limited empirical support for a direct effect of cues on alcohol consumption. The long-term goal of this research is to understand how alcohol cues become powerfully linked with alcohol drinking, their influences on physiology and behavior, and how they promote alcohol consumption and alcohol dependence. The objective of the proposed research project is to determine how associations between alcohol and the places where it is consumed influence ad lib drinking and the behavioral processes underlying the causal link using a de novo conditioning model in heavy drinkers. This novel model, developed in the applicants'laboratory, is particularly well-suited to studying conditioned alcohol associations because exposure to alcohol and alcohol-paired environments can be carefully controlled allowing a comprehensive analysis of the results. The working hypothesis is that alcohol conditioned cues (contexts) alter behavior and subjective responses to alcohol which mediate an increase in drinking. The rationale for the project is that vital knowledge regarding conditioned responses to alcohol contexts will lead to novel strategies to counteract responses to conditioned alcohol cues, their influence on behavior, and alcohol drinking. The hypothesis, based upon strong preliminary data from the applicants'laboratory, will be tested by three specific aims: 1) Identify mood, behavior and subjective responses to alcohol in the alcohol-paired context, 2) Assess ad lib alcohol drinking in the alcohol-paired context and determine how it is related to mood, behavior and subjective responses to alcohol, and 3) Determine how individual differences in alcohol subjective response influence the development of conditioned associations between alcohol and contexts. We believe that the proposed plan of research is innovative because it will examine how conditioned associations between alcohol and contexts are formed in humans, the influence of the conditioned associations on mood and behavior, and their direct effect on alcohol consumption. This research project is significant because it will advance and expand understanding of how conditioned associations between alcohol and cues are acquired and of their influences on alcohol reward, wanting and consumption. Ultimately this knowledge is expected to inform the development of novel strategies and pharmacotherapies to counteract responses to the conditioned cues in effective treatment approaches.
The proposed research is relevant to public health because the findings are expected to ultimately inform unique treatment approaches and methods to counteract the powerful effects of alcohol contextual cues on drinking and relapse. Thus, the project is also relevant to the mission of NIAAA which is to support behavioral research on the causes and treatment of alcoholism and alcohol-related problems.