A new study has been released which shows that alcoholism can impair memory functioning before Korsakoff’s Syndrome occurs.
The study found that associative memory – used in remembering faces and names, can be damaged through alcoholism. They set out to compare episodic memory: long-term memory associated with people, places and experiences; and working memory: limited short-term memory e.g. a phone number to dial and shopping lists.
How did they measure alcoholic memory function?
The study tested memory performance tasks, namely face-name association and face or name recognition, among 10 alcoholic and 10 non-alcoholic participants. Participants were asked to not only learn the face-name association, but to also judge whether the picture was a man or a woman, (this is shallow processing). In another set, participants were asked to judge whether the person looked ‘honest or not,’ (deep processing).
What did they find out about alcohol and memory?
Alcoholics and non-alcoholics performed similarly during the initial processing. However the alcoholics were inferior to the non-alcoholics in the accuracy of their memory of the task, whether they were asked to recognise the correct face-name pair or simply asked to identify which face they had seen earlier in the task.”
These performances were linked with different brain regions in alcoholics from those of the non-alcoholics as measured on MRI; in particular, associative learning in alcoholics was related to cerebellar brain volumes. This pattern was different from associations observed in non-alcoholics, who showed relations between associative learning and limbic system volumes. So although alcohol does not destroy all memory systems, it does affect episodic memory and working memory systems.
“This study focused on a cognitive process essential in daily living,” added said Sara Jo Nixon, a professor in the department of psychiatry at the University of Florida. “Learning the names of new friends, colleagues or acquaintances is only one example of this type of learning, but it is of particular social and personal importance.”
The study authors Professor Edith V. Sullivan and Professor Anne-Lise Pite said: “Impaired memory abilities can have harmful consequences on an alcoholic’s day-to-day functioning. At work, alcoholics who have a job with a high cognitive load may have difficulties in learning new tasks. At home, memory disorders may be considered as disinterest in family life and may result in conflicts.”
Why are these findings important for rehab treatment providers?
The study authors noted that “from a clinical perspective, impaired episodic memory in alcoholics may hamper obtaining full benefits from rehabilitation efforts because successful treatment requires: one, learning new knowledge such as the meaning, self-awareness, and consequences of ‘addiction’ or ‘drug;’ and two, to ‘re-experience’ episodes when previously drinking, which enables anticipation and recognition of potentially risky situations.”
The results will be published in the July 2012 issue of Alcoholism: Clinical & Experimental Research.
Page last reviewed and medically fact-checked | July 27, 2021