The effects of an acute bout of exercise on neural activity in alcohol and cocaine craving: study protocol for a randomised controlled trial

Trials. 2018 Dec 29;19(1):713. doi: 10.1186/s13063-018-3062-0.


Background: Numerous studies suggest that exercise may be an effective adjunct treatment for substance use disorders. It has been suggested that exercise-induced improvements in inhibitory control may reduce craving for the substance of abuse. However, this potential mechanism has seldom been researched.

Objectives: The aim of the ExAlCo Study is to examine how acute bouts of exercise, at varying intensities, impact on craving for cocaine or alcohol. Cerebral haemodynamic responses during cognitive tests of inhibitory control, and exposure to substance-related cue imagery, will also be assessed using functional near-infrared spectroscopy.

Design: The study is a crossover randomised controlled trial. Participants will be recruited from inpatient and outpatient psychiatric treatment centres, on the approval of their treating physician. A healthy control group will be recruited using online advertising. All participants will undergo each of three conditions in randomised order: 20 min of cycle ergometry at 50-60% of maximum heart rate; 20 min of exercise at 70-80% of maximum heart rate; and 20 min of quiet reading. Immediately before and after each condition, participants will be asked to complete a computerised Stroop test, watch a film containing substance-related images and self-report craving levels. During the Stroop test and film viewing, participants' neural activity will be measured via functional near-infrared spectroscopy.

Outcomes: The primary outcome measures are self-reported craving, inhibitory control and cerebral haemodynamic response to the Stroop test and a substance-related film. It is hoped that the findings from this study will shed more light on the role of exercise in the treatment of substance use disorders, particularly its scope in preventing relapse through reduced craving severity.

Trial registration:, NCT03502486 . Registered retrospectively on 5 April 2018.

Keywords: Addiction; Exercise; Inhibitory control; Neuroimaging.

Publication types

  • Clinical Trial Protocol

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Adult
  • Aged
  • Alcohol Drinking / adverse effects
  • Alcohol Drinking / physiopathology
  • Alcohol Drinking / prevention & control*
  • Alcohol Drinking / psychology
  • Alcoholism / diagnosis
  • Alcoholism / physiopathology
  • Alcoholism / psychology
  • Alcoholism / therapy*
  • Bicycling
  • Brain / physiopathology*
  • Brain Waves*
  • Cerebrovascular Circulation
  • Cocaine-Related Disorders / diagnosis
  • Cocaine-Related Disorders / physiopathology
  • Cocaine-Related Disorders / psychology
  • Cocaine-Related Disorders / therapy*
  • Craving*
  • Cross-Over Studies
  • Cues
  • Exercise Therapy / methods*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Motion Pictures
  • Neural Inhibition
  • Randomized Controlled Trials as Topic
  • Spectroscopy, Near-Infrared
  • Stroop Test
  • Switzerland
  • Time Factors
  • Treatment Outcome
  • Young Adult

Associated data