New Research on Alcohol and Executive Function

Medical News Today provides a synopsis of some new research on how alcohol impacts brain function both immediately and chronically.  From Medical News Today:

[…] “Executive functions are very, very important to everyday living,” added Marlene Oscar Berman, professor of neurology, psychiatry, and anatomy & neurobiology at Boston University Medical School, and research career scientist at the Boston Veteran Affairs Healthcare System. “They are defined differently by different theorists and researchers. Most agree, however, that executive functions are human qualities, including self-awareness, that allow us to be independent individuals with purpose and foresight about what we will do and how we behave. Common executive abilities include judgment, problem solving, decision making, planning, and social conduct, and depend upon many of our cognitive abilities such as attention, perception, memory, and language.”

“Alcohol affects executive functioning both acutely and chronically,” said Swartzwelder. “In terms of acute effects, a single heavy dose of alcohol will lead to a decrease in a person’s executive functioning, particularly in terms of what we call ‘working memory.’ Working memory allows you to juggle several cognitive ‘balls’ at the same time, and remember what you’ve been doing. In terms of chronic alcohol consumption, the effects are much broader, and particularly damaging to the frontal lobes, that region of the brain that really is responsible for executive functioning. It occurred to us that, among people who have just stopped drinking, there may still be some residual effects from their acute consumption as well as cumulative effects from their chronic drinking.”

All of the study participants were male veterans receiving treatment at the Durham Veterans Affairs Medical Center. Researchers administered memory and executive-function tests to two groups, alcohol-dependent participants (n=27) receiving treatment at an outpatient substance-abuse clinic, and age-matched primary-care outpatients (n=18). Researchers then compared the groups’ neuropsychological performance, self-evaluation of cognitive status, and associations between drinking history and cognitive impairment.

Results indicate that the alcohol-dependent and non-dependent groups differed on abstract reasoning, memory discrimination, and effectiveness on timed tasks.

“These deficits may very well limit a person’s ability to engage in effective planning and strategizing, both in terms of their treatment compliance and in terms of their everyday lives,” said Swartzwelder. “This implies that, not only do the clinicians who are treating alcoholics have to take their executive dysfunction into account, but so do their spouses, children, bosses and other social contacts.” [full text]

The article also talks about the need for more research on how executive functions for adolescents are impacted by alcohol consumption, particularly since adolescent executive functions are not fully developed. Parents might also want to know about the work of Stanton Peele, PhD, on “Addiction-Proofing Your Child.”

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