Cognitive regulation of craving in alcohol-dependent and social drinkers

Alcohol Clin Exp Res. 2015 Feb;39(2):343-9. doi: 10.1111/acer.12637.


Background: Helping alcohol-dependent individuals to cope with, or regulate, cue-induced craving using cognitive strategies is a therapeutic goal of cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) for alcohol dependence. An assumption that underlies this approach is that alcohol dependence is associated with deficits in such cognitive regulation abilities. To date, however, the ability to utilize such strategies for regulation of craving has never been tested in a laboratory setting.

Methods: Here we compared 19 non-treatment-seeking, alcohol-dependent drinkers (AD) to 21 social drinkers (SD), using a laboratory task that measured the ability to reduce cue-induced alcohol craving by thinking about long-term negative consequences of drinking, which is a specific cognitive regulation strategy that is taught in CBT. The task also assessed the ability to reduce food craving elicited by high-calorie food cues using a similar strategy.

Results: The reduction in craving when using this cognitive regulation strategy was approximately double in SD, compared to AD, for both alcohol and food cues. Furthermore, in SD but not AD, the ability to regulate cue-induced alcohol craving was correlated with the ability to regulate food craving. There were no significant correlations found between the ability to regulate cue-induced alcohol craving and a number of self-report measures related to severity of alcohol dependence, baseline craving, impulsivity, and general self-regulation ability, for either AD or SD.

Conclusions: The results suggest that alcohol dependence is associated with deficits in cognitive regulation of cue-induced craving and that these deficits are not specific to the regulation of alcohol craving, but generalize to the regulation of other appetitive states, such as food craving. Future studies may use similar procedures to address the neural and cognitive processes that underlie such regulation deficits, as well as the effects of treatments such as CBT on these processes.

Keywords: Cognitive Behavioral Therapy; Coping Skills; Craving; Cue-Exposure; Self-Regulation.

Publication types

  • Comparative Study
  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adaptation, Psychological
  • Adult
  • Alcohol Drinking / psychology
  • Alcohol Drinking / therapy*
  • Alcoholic Beverages*
  • Alcoholism / psychology
  • Alcoholism / therapy*
  • Cognition*
  • Cognitive Behavioral Therapy*
  • Craving*
  • Cues*
  • Female
  • Food
  • Humans
  • Impulsive Behavior
  • Male
  • Middle Aged