By Dr Bryan Singer
The Sussex Addiction Research and Intervention Centre (SARIC) is made up of a collection of investigators who are dedicated to understanding the biopsychosocial underpinnings of addiction and developing rational therapies for its treatment. Over the years, SARIC has been extraordinarily active in investigating why there is variation across individuals in the magnitude of binge-drinking and the susceptibility to developing an alcohol use disorder. The laboratory of Professor Dora Duka, for example, uncovered that individual differences in impulsive behaviours and emotional-processing can impact alcohol consumption, as well as how unique patterns of brain activity regulate these processes. The laboratory of SARIC researcher Professor Aldo Badiani has also found that alcohol consumption may alter an individual’s perception, including by enhancing the control a person feels they have over situations (an increased ‘sense of agency’).
During the COVID-19 pandemic, Dr Bryan Singer’s lab at SARIC has started assessing how patterns of drug and alcohol use, as well as behavioural addictions such as gambling, have been changing. Participants were given several online questionnaires asking them to compare their behaviours during the pandemic to the previous year (research conducted by Adam Dickinson and Vlada Yarosh). While the data collected are still preliminary, some interesting patterns have emerged. In our previous work, we have proposed that the act of drug-seeking may not always be dominated by habitual behaviours, as some research groups suggest; we argue that individuals who have an addiction may need to adapt to ever-changing circumstances to obtain their drug of choice. Our initial findings regarding alcohol use during the pandemic support this idea; individuals changed their behaviours to adapt to where and how they acquired alcohol (Figure 1). Preliminary data regarding cannabis use are similar. These initial findings highlight that drug- and alcohol-use may continue to be problematic during the pandemic and that individuals may be adapting how they pursue drugs and alcohol to continue their use.
In a second effort to investigate if the reasons for alcohol and drug use have been changing during COVID-19, we have identified, thus far, two possible relationships. First, alcohol-use is strongly associated with employment status; individuals who have lost their job and have remained unemployed are at increased risk of showing symptoms of an alcohol use disorder. While we have not found a similar relationship between employment status and cannabis use, it appears that the degree of cannabis use is positively correlated with pandemic-related worry. Together, these preliminary findings suggest that during the pandemic how people are obtaining and why people are using alcohol and drugs may be changing.
Across research groups, SARIC is committed to understanding all aspects of alcohol use disorder and devising novel treatments to help individuals and communities impacted by the condition. Dry January, which is supported by research from SARIC’s Dr Richard De Visser, requires that individuals commit to an alcohol-free life during the month; this has a long-term effect, helping people to reduce their alcohol-consumption throughout the year. Therefore, minimising alcohol use during January’s COVID-19 lockdown in the UK should reduce drinking in subsequent months, as pandemic-related restrictions are lifted and life slowly returns to normal.
Bryan Singer is a Lecturer in Psychology and co-director of the Sussex Addiction Research and Intervention Centre (SARIC). He is also part of the Behavioural and Clinical Neuroscience research group in the School of Psychology.