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New scientific evidence supports aversion therapy to fight alcoholism

SEATTLE — About 88,000 people die in this country from alcohol-related causes, according to the National Institutes of Health.

Aversion therapy has been around for decades but a UW Medicine scientist says there is scientific evidence for the first time that proves it reconditions the brain to fight alcoholism.

Q13 News sat down with a woman who went through aversion therapy.

Every step Robin takes without a sip of alcohol is a big deal.

“I knew I was an alcoholic when my body craved the alcohol,” Robin said.

So she waged a war against that craving by purposely getting sick through aversion therapy.

“It absolutely saved my life, I don’t think I had the willpower to do it without Schick Shadel,” Robin said.

During the treatment, Schick Shadel will give patients nausea medication called Ipecac and then the patients are told to drink their favorite alcoholic beverage.

By the time they take that sip the nausea medication kicks in, creating a repulsion against the alcohol.

“It wasn’t a pleasant experience as far as treatments go but the overall experience was pretty amazing,” Robin said.

Robin says the 10 days of aversion therapy treatment changed her life. She’s been sober for five years.

“I’ve not had the desire to drink,” Robin said.

For the first time, there is scientific evidence why Robin’s desire went away and it comes down to the brain.

“What we found was significant reduction in craving-related brain activity after they completed the treatment,,” UW Medicine Radiology and Engineering scientist Hunter Hoffman said.

He studied the brains of 13 patients at Schick Shadel before and after aversion therapy.

“The statistical significance of this was off the scale,” Hoffman said.

Hoffman showed Q13 News an MRI of a patient when the person visualized having a drink. The brain scan showed a lot of red, which symbolizes stimulation, especially the occipital cortex.

After aversion therapy, the same brain showed no signs of cravings, even after told to fantasize about having that beer.

“Sixty-nine percent of the people were sober after one year of participating in the study,” Hoffman said.

For Robin, it was hard to open up about her past but she took the step because she wants to help others.

“I’ve never been happier, I’ve never felt better,” Robin said.

Robin says she and her husband were at the Jason Aldean concert during the Las Vegas shooting on Oct. 1. The couple ran for their lives that night.
She says the trauma of something like that would have made her turn to alcohol in the past but not now. She credits aversion therapy but also other treatments and support she received at Schick Shadel.