Joystick Study Aims To Help Alcoholics Avoid Relapse

By Dorri Olds 01/03/17

Some of the study's participants say that the image-related therapy has helped keep them sober.

Man holding joystick

An ongoing study in Berlin is using joysticks and alcohol-related images to measure users' responses in an attempt to prevent alcoholic relapses.

In the study, participants view images on a computer screen and are told to use a joystick to push alcohol-related images away. They are also instructed to engage the joystick to pull images of water and other non-alcoholic beverages closer.

Researcher Hanna Lesch visited the Charité University in Berlin, Germany, where the ongoing study about alcohol avoidance is taking place.

Lesch described the parameters of the study. “Every click of a joystick results in a new pair of images,” said Lesch. “Pushing the joystick forward makes an image grow smaller. Pull in toward you, and the image grows. Sebold’s patients react strongly to images of alcohol and that is the basis of her training.” Miriam Sebold is the study's lead psychologist.

Alcoholics are motivated by images of alcohol, much like Pavlov’s dogs reacted to stimuli related to food. Non-alcoholics don’t respond any differently to images of a glass of orange juice versus a wine glass, while alcoholics respond very differently. At the facility, Lesch spoke with a study participant named Freddy. After he and his wife divorced, he began drinking daily—consuming at least two liters of beer and a few shots of hard liquor per day.

“I’ve tried to take a break from it more than a few times,” said Freddy, “but it was two, three days at the most. Then, I did some rehab, and then I did some more rehab. I was even in long-term rehab.”

But after everything he’d tried, Freddy kept relapsing. Lesch explained, “This is one of the greatest hurdles when attempting to rehabilitate alcoholics.” According to Sebold, nearly 85% just cannot stay away from alcohol.

Sebold said, “What it really comes down to is that this addiction is such a powerful illness, that again and again, you have these cases where the patients say, ‘I was dry for 10 years, and then I treated myself to a beer because I figured I could treat myself to something.’ Then, they relapse right back into this very strong addiction, where they’re drinking a bottle of vodka every day. These are very strong mechanisms inside their head that they have very little control over.”

Lesch described Freddy’s experience: “During the training, Freddy noticed no changes in his own behavior, but then, he did. Whenever he saw a bottle of alcohol inside a store, he was reminded of the images he’d seen during the training.”

After his participation in the study, Freddy described a scene in a store when he’d seen a photo of a bottle of alcohol yet turned his face away.

“As soon as they find out exactly where and how this therapy affects the human brain,” said Lesch, “the discovery could help lead to the development of new medicinal-based therapies. For Freddy, participating in the study has been worth it. Today, he’s doing his best to avoid even talking about alcohol.”

Freddy described how the test helped him stay away from the dark days of active alcoholism when he’d lost interest in cleaning his apartment or taking care of himself. Lesch reported, “Freddy has remained sober and the 64-year-old was proud to say he was even able to land a normal job.”

This is not the first joystick study in the ongoing pursuit of a way to keep alcoholics from relapsing. Psychologists in Nijmegen, the oldest city in the Netherlands, developed a training course to treat alcoholics using a zooming joystick.

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Dorri Olds is an award-winning writer whose work has appeared in many publications including The New York Times, Marie Claire, Woman’s Day and several book anthologies. Find Dorri on Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn.