Social anxiety could be treated by a computer program says a clinical trial at the University of Cincinnati. The clinical trial, which is based on previous findings concerning attention bias, will evaluate the results of a computer-based training program for social anxiety and alcohol problems.

Defined by the Anxiety and Depression Association of America as the “extreme fear of being scrutinized and judged by others in social or performance situations," Social Anxiety Disorder (SAD) is characterized by avoidance of social situations. SAD can interfere with job performance, social interactions, and even daily routines. Common treatments include exposure therapy, cognitive restructuring, and social skills training, all of which can be effective. This study will use Attention Bias Modification Training (ABMT), a new form of therapy for social anxiety disorder, to train participants to ignore negative stimuli that trigger their mental health issues.

The Trial

This clinical trial will examine, and attempt to correct, the attention bias of people with social anxiety disorder and people with alcohol abuse problems.

"We think that the way that people pay attention to things in their environment is important for both causing and maintaining social anxiety and alcoholism," said Joshua Magee, Ph.D. and Site Principal Investigator for the trial. “For instance, if I am walking down the street and looking around, I may not be closely monitoring what I am seeing; but if I am somebody who is socially anxious, my brain is more likely to zero in on that person who walks by with a threatening expression on his or her face." The same can be said of a person with alcohol problems, whose attention is more likely to wander to liquor stores in the vicinity.

Principal Investigator Elise Clerkin and Magee are evaluating the effectiveness of a computer-based Attention Modification Program (AMP), which measures response times to different visual information that appears on the screen. The researchers' goals are to improve response times and accuracy over eight 30-minute sessions in four weeks. Researchers hope that improving response times will also decrease social anxiety and alcoholic tendencies in participants by shifting their attention away from negative stimuli.

What the Trial can Achieve

The trial has been operational for six months with about 40 participants, but more participants are needed to come to a viable conclusion. If this training works, though, it could mean more funding towards ABMT programs for social anxiety, which would mean more pathways available for SAD and alcohol abuse treatment. Participants of the study could also be on the road to recovery from SAD and alcohol abuse.

The trial is sponsored by a grant from the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. Collaborating researchers include investigators from Brown University and Harvard University.

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Joshua Magee. Clinical Trial Uses Computer Program to Address Social Anxiety and Drinking. UC Health News, 25 June 2014.

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