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Mar 27, 2014 08:33 AM EDT

University of Wisconsin Madison researchers have designed a smartphone app that aims to prevent alcoholics and drug addicts from relapsing. The sober app, A-CHESS, nicknamed after the Center for Health Enhancement Systems Studies, alerts recovering alcoholics when they come close to their favorite drinking bars.

Alcohol dependence, a substance related disorder, is a lifetime psychiatric diagnosis with relapse rates similar to other chronic illnesses. Medical professionals have observed better results in Alcohol Use Disorder (AUDs) with ongoing treatments.

The smartphone application, Addiction-Comprehensive Health Enhancement Support System (A-CHESS), has been successfully tested in clinical trials.

For the study, the researchers divided randomized 349 patients with AUD from three residential programs. Around 179 patients were asked to attend a traditional follow-up treatment (179) for a year, the remaining 170 were also told to attend the program, plus they were given A-CHESS.

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The application included relaxation audios and emitted alerts if users came near a bar they used to frequently visit.

The researchers found that patients who used the smartphone application reported fewer risky drinking days than those who were under the traditional follow-up treatments. Risky drinking is characterized as having more than four standard drinks in two hours for men and more than three drinks for women.  A standard drink is defined as 12-ounce beer, 5-ounces of wine, or 1.5-ounces of distilled spirits.

 "The promising results of this trial in continuing care for AUDs point to the possible value of a smartphone intervention for treating AUDs and perhaps other chronic illnesses," the researchers said in a press release.

The results were based on patients' self-reporting on whether they started drinking again, which might have compromised the findings. However, addiction experts said that smartphones help play a vital role in fighting relapse.

Mark Wiitala, a 32-year-old participant, said that the app gave him a new beginning. The app allowed him to interact with peers from the same recovery program; plus sent an immediate encouraging text or phone call during emotional distress.

'It's an absolutely amazing tool,' said Wiitala, of Middlesex County, Mass, Star Tribune reports. Wiitala continues to use the app despite the end of the study.

The study is published online in JAMA Psychiatry.

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