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Sobriety app with panic button helps addicts stay on the wagon

According to the first large, randomized clinical trial to test this kind of stop-drinking app, 52 percent of users stayed dry for a year after leaving treatment, as opposed to only 40 percent of a control group that didn't have the app.

The app includes a panic button and an alarm that sounds if the user gets too close to a favorite bar or liquor store. Flickr, Ricardo Liberato

If you're inclined to agree with that old Alcoholics Anonymous saying, "Once an alcoholic, always an alcoholic," you just might be encouraged by a new app being developed at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, that aims to help -- as actively and even annoyingly as possible -- recovering addicts from falling off the wagon well after leaving treatment.

Called A-CHESS (short for Addiction-Comprehensive Health Enhancement Support System), the app, which is being developed with federal funding at the school's Center for Health Enhancement System Studies, is the first of its kind to be put to the test in a large-scale, randomized clinical trial.

The app, which can be thoroughly customized to know a person's drinking patterns right down to their favorite pub, aims to be that unwavering friend or counselor who keeps someone on the straight and narrow -- only, the fact that it's a smartphone app means it's always along for the ride.

To study the effects of the app, researchers followed 350 people who had completed treatment programs in one of five centers in the Northeast and Midwest. A week before their release, half those participants were given a smartphone with the app and a tutorial with a counselor to help understand how to use and customize the app; the other half completed the normal course of treatment but left without any additional support.

Over the course of the year, the app would come alive anytime the user was in a high-risk situation -- think of lingering near a liquor store and suddenly hearing your young child begging you not to drink. Users also had a panic button at their disposal if they needed additional support -- akin to a sponsor always being one touch away.

At the end of that year, 52 percent of the study participants who had successfully completed treatment and left with the app spent that year alcohol-free, compared with 40 percent of the people without the app. The former group also experienced half the number of risky days (1.4) than the control group did (2.75).

Researchers say they're currently forming a company that can commercialize the app, and hope to have it available online through Android and Apple stores soon.

Meanwhile, they're continuing to study a range of relapse prevention tools on mobile devices to help ease some of the burden drug addiction adds to the health care system and beyond. Ultimately, they say, the A-CHESS app could be part of a larger system called Seva (Hindi for selfless caring), which will join cognitive behavioral therapy with mobile social support to hep prevent not just relapses but also the spread of STDs such as HIV and hepatitis.