Study Links Alcohol Dependence to Specific Brain Deficits
Alcohol dependence affects multiple areas of brain functioning and carries with it various health risks. It has been connected to memory deficits, heart disease, and increased risk of liver disease and certain types of cancer.
While research related to the brain and alcohol dependence has largely focused on the memory-executive functions, there have been few studies related to the high-level cognitive functions, such as attentional bias and deficits.
A recent study looked at the three attentional networks, which includes alerting (maintaining an alert state), orienting (understanding where to direct one’s attention), and executive control (working memory and problem-solving). The researchers found that the deficits observed in executive control were more pronounced when compared with the other types of attentional networks. The findings appear in the July 2014 issue of the journal Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research.
Corresponding author Pierre Maurage, a professor at Catholic University of Louvain, says that alcohol dependence can impair some high-level cognitive functions. These impairments can affect a person’s ability to change their alcohol consumption behaviors. The impairments result when excessive consumption leads to damage to the brain structure and functioning, and can play a critical role in inhibiting abstinence or lead to relapse for those who have sought treatment.
How Alcohol Consumption Affects Attention
Another researcher involved in the study, Salvatore Campanella, a professor of psychopathology at the University of Brussels and research associate at the Belgian Fund of Scientific Research, says that attention is a fundamental process of the brain. Campanella says that there are sub-components of attention and they each must be examined to determine how alcohol consumption affects them. There are important implications for clinical application when various parts of attention are explored for their relationship with alcohol consumption.
The researchers recruited 30 detoxified alcohol dependent participants (22 men and eight women). The participants were in the third week of their treatment at a center in Brussels. In addition, there were 30 control subjects who were light drinkers, defined as 10 alcohol units or less per week. The controls were matched with the participants for gender, age and education levels. The two groups were administered the Attention Network Test, which is a measurement of attentional alterations associated with the three areas of attention the researchers were investigating.
Relapse and Recovery After Deciding to Get Sober
The researchers noted that the earlier studies had looked at attentional abilities related to alcohol dependence, but for unspecified tasks. The researchers found that two of the networks, alerting and orienting, were preserved in those with alcohol dependence.
Deficits were detected, however, in executive functions. The researchers believe that the findings could have an important impact on the clinical practices when treating alcohol dependence. There may be further research necessary to examine how the findings may explain how alcohol-dependent individuals may relapse or how they may recover following a decision to abstain from alcohol.