International study explores how AA contributes to recovery

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Treatment of alcohol use disorder is multi-faceted and often includes participation in mutual-support groups, the oldest and largest of which is Alcoholics Anonymous (AA).

Although frequent AA meeting attendance is associated with greater abstinence from alcohol, there is little understanding of the specific mechanisms by which AA benefits people. In other words, we know that AA works, but we aren’t sure how.

Recent studies suggest that AA may prompt important behavioural changes by positively impacting impulsivity and social networks. New research from the Peter Boris Centre for Addictions Research will take a deeper dive into this theory. The study will be led by Dr. James MacKillop, Peter Boris Chair in Addictions and HRI Senior Scientist, and Dr. John Kelly, Elizabeth R. Spallin Professor of Psychiatry in Addiction Medicine at Harvard Medical School. Their team will examine impulsivity and social networks to see how these mechanisms drive recovery success in AA attendees.

The process

Researchers will follow people seeking treatment for alcohol use disorder in both inpatient and outpatient settings. The study will involve participants from multiple treatment programs based in Guelph and Hamilton, Ontario, and Boston, Massachusetts.

Participants will be assessed when they enter treatment, at 4-6 weeks into treatment, and at four more time points over a one-year period. Assessments will ask about alcohol use, personality traits, family and peer behaviour, and general personal and health information. Novel approaches will be employed to measure impulsive behaviour and analyze social networks, allowing researchers to determine how these mechanisms relate to abstinence and other markers of recovery.

Generating new knowledge to help recovery

This study will shed light on the psychological and social mechanisms of recovery and how AA activates these mechanisms. Researchers also hope to discover factors that could predict positive or negative experiences with AA. Clinicians and scientists may also use findings to identify therapeutic targets for people receiving treatment in an effort to boost recovery success.

Funding and collaboration

This study, entitled Investigating Impulsivity and Social Network Changes as Novel Mechanisms of Behavioural Change for Alcoholics Anonymous’ (AA) Positive Effects, is funded by the US National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA).

Collaborators on this project include:

  • John Kelly (Massachusetts General Hospital, Harvard Medical School)
  • Robert Stout (PIRE Decision Sciences Institute, Providence, RI USA)
  • Allan Clifton (Vassar College, New York, USA)