Attentional Bias

Do Neurobiological Models of Addiction predict relapse in Abstinent Alcoholics?

In our previous blog on we looked at automatic physiological response to cues that alcoholics appear to experience. These habitual responses are well explained by reinforcement, conditioning or neurobiological models of addiction.

However, do these neurobiological models predict relapse in abstinent alcoholics and addicts?

Factors in relapse

Cues, external especially, seem to be only one of various factors in relapse.

They are present in a relatively small minority of studies or interact with other variables such as stress and negative affect (NA).

Various studies show that the highest high-risk relapse situations are negative emotions, testing personal control, social pressure, and urge and temptations (1), that 62 –73% of relapse episodes were due to negative emotion and social pressure. Heroin addicts relapse primarily because of NE and lack of social supports. Mood state, along with social isolation and family factors, was more likely to be related to relapse incidences with a positive correlation between NE and alcohol-seeking behaviour.

Thus the most commonly cited reason for relapse was negative mood states, consistent with previous studies of relapse factors (2).  Also reasons for relapse did not differ in relation to the primary drug of dependence (alcohol, methamphetamine, heroin), reflecting the commonality of relapse processes across diverse types of substances.

Marlatt (3,4) , views relapse as an unfolding process in which resumption of substance use is the last event in a long sequence of maladaptive responses to internal or extemal stressors such as negative emotional states, interpersonal conflicts, and social pressures. In fact negative emotional states ….coping, self-efficacy and stressful life events appeared to be of greater import in determining relapse than ‘cues’.


It would appear that cue associated stimuli plays a minor role in relapse, with stress and NA appearing to be a more important determinant of relapse.

So conditioning models do not appear to give a comprehensive account of relapse and this may be particularly the case in abstinent, treatment seeking alcoholics. How does conditioning methodology adequately explain this group?

Attentional Bias

Do treatment seeking alcoholic have the same attentional bias as non treatment seeking active alcoholics?

In fact, studies seem to show a negative attentional bias in alcohol-dependent patients that may be interpreted as an avoidance of alcohol-related stimuli.

Townshend and Duka (2007) propose that treatment seeking individuals have established active avoiding strategies and  are able to disengage their attention from alcohol cues (5).

In fact is suggested that a positive attentional bias towards alcohol cues occurs when stimuli were presented shortly (50 ms), followed by a disengagement from alcohol cues in the 500 ms interval of cue presentation. This corresponds with a cognitive model of craving of Tiffany (6) where the 50ms may represent automatic approach before this automatic bias is interfered with by cognitive control, perhaps resulting in ‘craving’.

Does this visual approach–disengagement pattern reflect an  attentional bias which is appetitive or threat based? If there is avoidance are cues similar as  seen as in those with trait anxiety who have attentional bias for threat-related cues (7). A large body of evidence indicates that aversive emotional states are associated with biases in cognitive processing and, specifically, with increased attentional processing of threat-related cues.Is this also how treatment seeking addicted individuals are responding to substance-related cues?

It has also been demonstrated that abstinent, treatment seeking individuals also have a different cognitive or/and memory bias to active alcoholics. This has been illustrated in findings that the greater “accessibility” for positive vs. negative alcohol- associations in heavy vs. light drinkers was not found to be generalized to alcoholics in treatment vs. social drinkers (8). Rather, there was a trend for treated inpatients, motivated to attain abstinence, to show greater availability and accessibility for negative alcohol-related information.

To summarise, if there is a greater accessibility for negative alcohol-related infromation, different attentional bias in abstinent and non-abstinent alcoholics, what do conditioning models tell us about the reality of craving and relapse in abstinent alcoholics ?



1. El, S., Salah El, G., & Bashir, T. Z. (2004). High-risk relapse situations and self-efficacy: Comparison between alcoholics and heroin addicts. Addictive behaviors29(4), 753-758.

2.  Hammerbacher, M., & Lyvers, M. (2006). Factors associated with relapse among clients in Australian substance disorder treatment facilities. Journal of substance use11(6), 387-394.

3. Marlatt, G.A. (1978) Craving for alcohol, loss of control and relapse: Cognitive behavioural analysis. In: Nathan, P.E., Marlatt, G.A., and Loberg, T. eds. Alcoholism: new directions in behavioural research and treatment. Plenum Press, New York, 271-314.

4. Marlatt, G.A., and Gordon, J.R. (1985). Relapse prevention: maintenance strategies in the treatment of addictive behaviors. Guilford  Press, New York.

5. Townshend JMDuka Attentional bias associated with alcohol cues: differences between heavy and occasional social drinkersPsychopharmacology (Berl)2001;157:6774.

6. Tiffany, S. T. (1990). A cognitive model of drug urges and drug-use behavior: role of automatic and nonautomatic processes. Psychological review97(2), 147.

7.  Bar-Haim, Y., Lamy, D., Pergamin, L., Bakermans-Kranenburg, M. J., & van IJzendoorn, M. H. (2007). Threat-related attentional bias in anxious and nonanxious individuals: a meta-analytic study. Psychological bulletin133(1), 1.

8.  McCusker CG  Cognitive biases and addiction: an evolution in theory and methodAddiction 2001;96:4756.



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