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Auburn psychology researcher seeking to improve treatment options for alcohol use disorder

Published: April 21, 2022
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Statistics suggest that more than half of the adult population in the United States reports regular use of alcohol, with nearly a quarter of the population reporting that they suffer from problematic drinking. A researcher in Auburn University’s Department of Psychological Sciences in the College of Liberal Arts is exploring ways to improve and expand the available treatment options for those suffering from Alcohol Use Disorder, or AUD.

Samantha Fede, a neuroscientist, has a background in the study of cognition, brain and behavior. She came to Auburn last fall from the National Institutes of Health, or NIH, in Bethesda, Maryland. She brought with her a nearly $250,000 NIH-funded research program that has as its core objective the treatment of AUD using Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation, or TMS, and MRI neurofeedback.

Alcohol misuse costs about $249 billion every year, Fede writes in her research abstract. Much of this cost is related to negative consequences of alcohol use.

There is an established relationship between excessive alcohol use and crime commission, financial difficulties, intimate partner aggression, poor work performance and homicide. In fact, according to a Bureau of Justice Statistics study, 3 percent of violent criminals report being under the influence of alcohol at the time of their offense, and more than 50,000 additional individuals are convicted of DUI/DWI and alcohol-related public order offenses per year.

“My background is mostly working with people who have been incarcerated or who have been in trouble in other ways due to the effects of AUD,” Fede said. “I am interested in better understanding this disorder and developing more and better tools for reducing harm associated with substance use.”

Fede’s research is a two-pronged study.

“Part one uses TMS to stimulate brain response with magnetic fields to alter alcohol cue response,” Fede said. “The second part of this research uses TMS in combination with another intervention, real-time fMRI neurofeedback, to provide reinforcement of healthier brain activity and to evaluate whether the two can create long-term improvements in people with AUD.”

Fede explains that TMS already is an FDA-approved method for treating depression; however, its use in treating AUD remains a mostly unexplored area.

Initial evidence suggests that interventions such as TMS that target neurocircuitry have promise for AUD treatment, Fede writes in her abstract. However, there remains a critical need to leverage neurostimulation techniques toward a sustained decrease in problem drinking and related antisocial and aggressive behaviors. The ultimate objective in this research is to identify a neuroscientific intervention that works to decrease alcohol drinking and antisocial behavior in individuals with AUD.

Fede’s research is funded through 2025. She currently is working with students in the pilot phase to establish the research methods and process. The second phase is projected to begin this summer, working with persons seeking treatment for AUD.

“In my previous work, we wanted to establish the methods and process for neurofeedback only,” Fede said. “In the current phase, here at Auburn, we are developing a TMS approach to change neural responses associated with negative drinking outcomes. In the second phase, we’re evaluating whether these two tools help patients to control those neural responses and change negative behaviors after they’ve left the lab and they’re not actively receiving treatment.”

Fede said it is important to recognize that AUD is a medical disorder and that people who misuse alcohol or suffer from AUD should not be stigmatized. Stigma often prevents people from seeking help and receiving high-quality treatment.

“AUD is a disorder that afflicts many people to varying degrees of severity,” Fede said. “It is associated with many negative outcomes, including sometimes antisocial and aggressive behaviors. Through this research, we are going to show that these negative outcomes have a neurobiological basis and that it can be changed through intervention. That way, we can improve understanding of the disorder and give people with AUD more tools to improve their lives and those around them through better treatment options.”

(Written by Mitch Emmons)

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