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Alcoholism Affects Certain Types of Memory

Posted in Alcoholism

Excessive alcohol consumption can result in many problems, including long-term health issues like liver disease and cancer. However, it is suspected that alcohol addiction also results in alterations in the brain that lead to cognitive problems.

A new study from researchers at Stanford University finds that alcoholism affects certain types of memory functioning, long before amnesia associated with Korsakoff’s syndrome sets in. The study examined the cognitive and brain functions behind the memory problems connected with alcoholism through the use of structural magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). The results are published in an upcoming issue of the journal Alcoholism: Clinical & Experimental Research.

The team discovered that the changes occurring in the brain with the use of alcohol are generally associated with cerebellar brain volumes.

Corresponding author and professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Stanford’s School of Medicine Edith V. Sullivan explained that alcohol affects just some of the memory systems in the brain, such as working memory and episodic memory.

Episodic memory files away personal experiences and is believed to have an unlimited capacity. Working memory is a short-term memory system that is limited in its capacity. Episodic memory stores such things as face-name recognition and recipes, while working memory is more immediate, such as remembering to turn off the oven.

The study’s objective was to examine the cognitive process central to daily living. The processes affected by these systems help people remember phone numbers and how to get to a friend’s house. These types of memory needs are essential for maintaining social interactions, family responsibilities and employment.

The researchers conducted learning tasks with two groups, with one group including ten alcoholics comprised of eight men and two women; and ten controls or non-alcoholics comprised of five men and five women. The first group was recruited from community outpatient clinics, hospitals and treatment centers.

The learning tasks included associative exercises, such as face-name recognition. The responses were designated as "shallow encoding" if the participant remembered the face as a "man," and as "deep encoding" if the participant remembered the face as "honest."

The researchers found that new face-name associations were more difficult than learning names or faces alone for both the alcoholics and the control participants. However, alcoholics were impaired when it came to both face-name association and faces or names alone.

The differences in learning for alcoholics were associated with patterns of cerebellar brain volumes measured with MRI. The patterns observed were different than those noted in the controls, whose memory functions were more associated with limbic system volumes.

The authors of the study note that the findings are important for understanding the complexities of the impact that alcohol can have on the brain. The problems caused in memory systems may not only affect daily life, but also cause difficulty in remembering the consequences previously experienced from consuming alcohol.