Introduction: Alcohol craving is a highly challenging obstacle to achieve long-term abstinence. Making alcohol use disorder patients timely aware of high-risk craving situations may protect them against relapse by prompting them to mobilize their coping resources. Current advances in wearable and smart-phone technology provide novel opportunities for the development of detecting these situations of heightened risk of craving, by enabling continuous tracking of fluctuations in psychological and physiological parameters. The present study therefore aims to determine the association between self-reported craving and relapses, and between heightened physiological activity. Specifically, we measured cardiovascular and electrodermal activity, and self-reported craving during one hundred days in the daily life of people trying to recover from alcoholism. The secondary aim is to study whether the association between physiology and craving can be strengthened by the inclusion of context related psychological parameters.
Methods: An intensive repeated and continuous measures in naturalistic settings case-study design was employed. Ten participants were monitored with wearable bio-sensors and answered multiple questions every three hours on a smartphone app about craving, lapsing and multiple evidence based contextual variables. The association between physiology, craving and lapses was explored using Matthews correlation coefficients both with a current and 3 h lagged design. The contextual variables were included in a decision tree together with the physiological parameters to explore the added effect on the correlation of these contextual variables.
Results: The association between lapses and craving was highly different across individuals, varying between a weak to a strong association. The association between cardiovascular activity and heightened self-reported craving was negligible to weak, however with a high specificity, meaning that most craving events were accompanied by increase heart rate. However, the association between electrodermal activity and craving was lower than with cardiovascular activity for most participants, both prior (lagged) and during craving. For two of the participants the association between physiology and craving improved by adding contextual variables, however, precision was too low.
Conclusions: People differ strongly in their bodily reactions and psychological experiences during the first months of their addiction treatment. No individual in our study had unique one-to-one mappings between on the one hand physiological or psychological precursors, and on the other hand craving and (re)lapses. Therefore, detecting high risk craving situations with both physiological activity measured with wearables and psychological precursors to alert people specifically for an imminent (re)lapse, does not seem viable on the basis of the current results. We do see an added benefit of using physiology during treatment, as physiology can help start the conversation about possible high risk craving situations during that week. This would also help the counselor to gain added insights into the fluctuating states of the clients, and help to ameliorate the recall bias of clients. The present study showed the possibility and paved the way for future intensive longitudinal designs integrating both physiological, psychological and contextual factors during the challenging and lengthy recovery from addiction.
Keywords: Alcohol craving; Cardiovascular activity; Ecological momentary assessment; Electrodermal activity.
© 2022 The Authors.