Behaviour Control in Heavy Drinkers

Research funded by Australian Rotary Health suggests that getting people to reduce their drinking may be as simple as asking them about their drinking.

With a Royce Abbey Postdoctoral Fellowship from Australian Rotary Health, Dr Janette Smith at the The National Drug and Alcohol Research Centre (UNSW) investigated neurocognitive deficits in young heavy drinkers.

Dr Smith was particularly interested in how people who drink alcohol control their behaviour, whether there are sex differences in behaviour control, as well as if training to improve control of behaviour can help to reduce heavy drinking.

Addressing the idea that if problems with behavioural control are associated with drinking, then training to improve control might reduce heavy drinking, Dr Smith and her team were surprised to find training was not as effective as expected.

“Rather than finding an effective intervention, we have highlighted problems with the design and method of such studies; it seems the heavy drinkers reduce their drinking simply because they take part in a study about alcohol, not because of our training,” Dr Smith said.

“The fact that drinking can be reduced simply by asking someone about their drinking, suggests that screening for alcohol use could reduce risks at a population level, for example, a short questionnaire filled in at a GP waiting room.”

While these results were not the answer Dr Smith and her team hoped for, she says it’s an important step forward in determining the standard of evidence of effectiveness for such training studies.

“Although our training studies were aimed at developing a brief intervention to reduce heavy drinking, but did not produce the expected outcomes, it nonetheless raised interesting questions about the way in which training supposedly produced its effects on alcohol consumption in previous studies, suggesting that simply asking people about their drinking tends to reduce their drinking.”

In addition to these findings, Dr Smith found that heavy drinkers make more errors (associated with poor control over behaviour) than light drinkers, but not because they were unaware of errors.

“Future planned research will investigate whether heavy drinkers take appropriate steps to adjust future performance, once an error is noticed,” Dr Smith said.

Differences in how heavy drinking females and males control their behaviour was also examined.

“We have combined the results of several previously published studies to show that, while there appears to be no sex difference among heavy drinkers, there is some suggestion of greater problems in alcohol dependent females than males.”

Dr Smith noted that much more evidence is needed on alcohol dependent women, before any firm conclusions can be made.

She suggested that one problem could be that alcohol dependent men outnumber women by about 5 to 1 as research participants in this field.

“This results in underestimating the extent of the problem, since cognitive impairment appears to be greater in women,” Dr Smith said.

Dr Smith’s research has certainly raised even more questions, which she plans to investigate. One of her recent projects will look at brain and behavioural markers of control in male and female heavy drinkers.

Dr Smith has had 6 journal articles published during her Postdoctoral Fellowship and expects to have 7 more published in the near future.


Media contact: Jessica Cooper – (02) 8837 1900 or

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