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Cognitive Impairment and Recovery from Alcoholism

May 7, 2009 by Emily Battaglia 

According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA), brain damage is a “common and potentially severe consequence of long-term, heavy alcohol consumption.” 

Brain damage from alcoholism specifically involves the impairment of cognitive functioning – mental activities related to acquiring, storing, retrieving, and using information. Studies have shown that individuals recovering from alcoholism experience difficulty with particular cognitive tasks, especially those related to higher functioning.

Some brain damage related to alcoholism is reversible, but not all. Whether or not the damage is reversible seems to depend on the severity and duration of alcoholic behaviors. Impaired cognition contributes to poor job performance in adults and poor academic performance for teens.

Alcoholics tend to exhibit moderate deficiencies in intellectual functioning as well as diminished brain size and changes in brain cell activity. The two most common types of impairment resulting from alcohol abuse are difficulty with visual-spatial abilities and higher cognitive functioning. Visual-spatial abilities (perceiving and remembering the locations of objects relative to each other and in 2- and 3-dimensional space) include driving a car or assembling a piece of furniture based on written/illustrated instructions.

Research has shown that although habitual heavy drinkers and alcoholics test at similar levels as other kinds of addicts for intellect, alcohol abusers have particular trouble with tasks that involve higher cognitive processes. For instance, an alcohol abuser may be able to file and retrieve documents from an existing filing system without trouble, but may struggle to devise an entirely new filing system.

The exact relationship among lifetime duration of drinking habits, total quantity of alcohol consumed, and cognitive impairment remains unclear. Some habitual, long-term light-to-moderate drinkers show signs of cognitive impairment equivalent to detoxified alcoholics.

The good news is certain alcohol-related impairment appears reversible with abstinence from alcohol. Studies have shown that newly detoxified adult alcoholics may exhibit significant deficits in problem-solving, short-term memory, and visual-spatial abilities, but tend to recover brain function for several months to a year after beginning to abstain from alcohol. During this time, they often experience an increase in attention.

Understanding cognitive impairment in alcoholics is especially important in considering alcoholism treatment programs and methods. Recovering alcoholics usually experience the most severe impairment in the first few weeks after beginning to abstain from alcohol. This high level of impairment interferes with the recovering individual’s ability to benefit from psycho-educational treatment classes or skill-development curricula. Recovering alcoholics may need to take more time than other kinds of recovering addicts before attending these activities in order for the activities to be beneficial.

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