As anyone who has struggled with addiction knows, recovery is never a straightforward process. In fact, between 40 and 60 percent of people who seek treatment for substance abuse will relapse within one year. Researchers are looking to improve these odds through both biomedical and behavioral interventions. These are a few of the most exciting advances in recovery that are being explored right now.
1. Anti-drug vaccines.
These create an "immunity" to specific drugs, which prevents users from experiencing the pleasurable effects that those drugs provide. Vaccines for cocaine have shown promise in clinical trials, and scientists are currently developing a similar vaccine for heroin. While these vaccines may potentially improve recovery outcomes, experts note that they would require booster shots to remain effective over time. But vaccines are not without risk. In an interview with the National Institute on Drug Abuse, Dr. Thomas Kosten, one of the leading researchers working to develop a cocaine vaccine, notes that a user might take a higher than usual dosage of an addictive substance in order to "override" the vaccine.
2. Behavioral interventions.
Behavioral interventions have also shown great promise, particularly those that focus on developing mindful behaviors. Noting the prevalence of relapse among those who sought treatment for alcoholism, a group of researchers sought to gauge the effectiveness of mindfulness-based relapse prevention relative to cognitive behavioral relapse prevention and 12-step programs.
Instead of focusing on avoiding situations that might trigger a relapse, participants in the mindfulness-based relapse prevention group were encouraged to cultivate an awareness of their physical and psychological states and to recognize the underlying reasons for their substance abuse. By learning to recognize and respond to internal cues instead of merely avoiding external triggers, mindfulness-based relapse prevention participants had better long-term outcomes. Another group of researchers found that mindfulness and meditation training helped rewire participants’ "circuitry of control," leading to reduced cravings, improved self-control, improved moods, and improved ability to cope with stress.
3. Mobile technology.
Mobile technology is also playing a key role in recovery support. In a recent study, researchers in Hong Kong investigated whether technology-enhanced aftercare would help participants in a smoking cessation program remain tobacco free. Participants were divided into three groups. The control group received a booklet, one group received social support via a Facebook group, and another group received social support via WhatsApp, a free, cross-platform instant messaging system for smartphones. Both Facebook and WhatsApp provided the opportunity for participants to discuss their recovery with one another, but researchers found that the WhatsApp platform tended to encourage more discussion among participants, which in turn led to fewer cases of relapse.
In a cross-cultural study, researchers in Taiwan, China, and the United States found that a smartphone app could provide much-needed support for those recovering from heroin addiction, but that in order to be wholly effective, the implementation of the app needs to take into account cultural and social barriers such as stigma toward drug users and the potential for criminal prosecution. As these studies demonstrate, when used in appropriate contexts, apps have the potential to play a positive role in the recovery process.
Behavioral interventions that leverage technology to help build strong support networks and cultivate mindfulness can improve the odds of recovery and help prevent relapse. Today, apps like Sober Grid—which uses geo-social networking to help its users connect to an online community dedicated to sobriety—are using mobile technology to build strong peer support networks and help users identify, avoid, and cope with events and situations that could potentially trigger relapse. These apps are also using cutting-edge technology, including machine learning, to become more responsive to their users’ needs, with the ultimate goal of using data collected to recognize triggers and intervene to prevent relapses before they occur.
Addiction is a chronic disease that fundamentally alters the brain, which makes treatment difficult and relapse more likely. Given recent advances in medical and behavioral treatments, along with the rise of sobriety-focused mobile technology, hope is on the horizon for the more than 21.5 million Americans who battle a substance abuse disorder.