Alcoholism Damages Ability to Pay Attention
People affected by alcoholism experience several harmful, long-term changes in brain function. While some of these changes directly account for the development of an alcohol addiction, others appear in parts of the brain responsible for maintaining the critical ability to focus and maintain attention. In a study published in May 2014 in the journal Alcoholism: Clinical & Experimental Research, researchers from two Belgian institutions conducted a detailed exploration of the ways in which alcoholism damages the ability to pay attention. These researchers concluded that the most crucial changes involve a reduction in the brain’s capacity to exercise a higher-level faculty called executive control or executive function.
Alcohol and the Brain
Whenever you drink any significant amount of alcohol, this substance passes through the bloodstream to the brain, where it temporarily alters normal function in an area known in layman’s terms as the pleasure center. On a physical level, alcoholism is largely the result of ongoing, excessive alcohol exposure that transforms the temporary pleasure center alterations associated with short-term drinking into much longer-term alterations that persist over time. Since alcohol is toxic to humans, repeated exposure can also trigger direct damage in other parts of the brain. In addition, alcohol-related brain damage can stem from other causes, such as changes in cardiovascular (heart and blood vessel) health, generally poor nutritional status, a specific deficiency of a dietary nutrient called thiamine (vitamin B1) and exposure to accidents or other forms of injury. Brain ailments linked to sustained, excessive drinking include Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome and a balance-impairing condition known as ataxia.
How the Brain Maintains Attention
Three separate nerve networks inside the brain apparently work together to help maintain the everyday ability to focus and pay attention. One of these networks, called the alerting network, helps warn you about potentially dangerous changes in your surrounding environment. A second network, called the orienting network, helps coordinate the various sensory cues that keep you oriented to the minute-to-minute realities of your environment. The third network, called the executive control or executive function network, gives you the ability to use information from past experiences as the basis for making appropriate, rational decisions about how to act now and in the future. In a study published in 2005 in the journal NeuroImage, researchers from Yale University, Cornell University and the Mount Sinai School of Medicine conducted brain scans that confirmed the contribution of each of these three networks to the task of maintaining focus and attention.
Pinpointing Alcoholism’s Effects
In the study published in Alcoholism: Clinical & Experimental Research, researchers from Belgium’s Catholic University of Louvain and Saint-Luc University Hospital used an examination of 30 people recovering from alcoholism to make a detailed exploration of how alcoholism damages the brain’s capacity for maintaining attention. All of these participants had recently gone through alcohol detoxification (the typical first step in active recovery). Each of them took a short test, called the Attention Network Test, specifically designed to uncover changes in the normal function of the alerting, orienting and executive control networks inside the brain. For comparison’s sake, another 30 individuals not affected by alcoholism also took the test.
The researchers concluded that, compared to people unaffected by alcoholism, people affected by this condition experience a general slowdown in their ability to pay attention and react to changes in their surrounding environment. When they looked more closely at the results of the Attention Network Test, the researchers found that alcoholics more or less maintain the basic level of function inside their brains’ alerting networks and orienting networks. However, alcoholics experience a marked decline inside their brains’ executive control networks. The researchers concluded that three underlying factors are associated with a loss of executive control inside the brain of a person with alcoholism: maintaining an alcoholic drinking pattern for extended periods of time, having a relatively high average alcohol intake before going through the detoxification process and going through the detoxification process on multiple occasions.
The study’s authors believe their work supports a previously proposed theory of alcoholism-related brain damage, which holds that much of this damage occurs in the part of the brain responsible for exerting executive control. In line with this conclusion, they stress the importance of developing treatments for alcoholism that focus on the damage done to the executive control network, located in a part of the brain called the frontal lobe.