Mason Researcher Develops New Method for Drug Rehabilitation
By Lisa M. Gerry
Mason social work professor Holly Matto has developed a relapse prevention protocol for substance-dependent adults that could change how rehabilitation programs are structured.
The dual-processing treatment protocol developed by Matto integrates visual and verbal processing, which offers a different method of treatment delivery from traditional didactic relapse prevention treatment programs.
“In my practice as a social worker, I’ve always had an interest in including multiple ways of learning through art therapy and other nonverbal methods,” says Matto, who worked for several years at a drug rehabilitation center in Maryland.
Matto believes this dual-processing protocol is crucial to recovery because as she explains, “In the neuroscientific literature it has been shown that drug-related experiences and stressor experiences are encoded in parts of the brain that are emotional and sensory based in nature. [Therefore], we need to have techniques that are accessing and integrating all parts of the brain.”
The treatment program makes use of art therapy and includes image processing techniques, structured drawing directives, and activities using clay and collaging. “We use a lot of different types of materials to access emotional information, which we use along with cognitive strategies to help clients self-regulate,” says Matto, who teaches in the Social Work Department of the College of Health and Human Services.
Matto is currently leading a clinical trial in partnership with Inova Fairfax Hospital’s Comprehensive Addiction Treatment Services (CATS) program and Georgetown University’s Center for Functional and Molecular Imaging to determine the efficacy of this new 10-week relapse prevention protocol.
Using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) technology, Matto and her team observe brain activity in patients as they are shown drug stressor visual stimuli, which might include an image of a needle or a spilled drink. The hypothesis is that over time as patients continue to participate in this relapse prevention protocol, their ability to use coping strategies they’ve learned to cognitively inhibit their stress response will improve.
Matto is excited by the possibility that this protocol could be an even more effective way to reach and rehabilitate a population she is so passionate about. “I love working with substance-dependent individuals and working in the area of addiction science,” says Matto. “Addiction is a very challenging social problem requiring creative interdisciplinary solutions.”
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