Alcohol Affects Executive Cognitive Functioning Differentially on the Ascending Versus Descending Limb of the Blood Alcohol Concentration Curve


  • Supported by a grant from the Canadian Institute of Health Research.

Robert O. Pihl, PhD, Department of Psychology and Psychiatry, McGill University, Stewart Biological Sciences Bldg., 1205 Doctor Penfield Ave., Montreal, QC, H3A 1B1; Fax: 514-398-4896; E-mail:


Background: Executive cognitive functioning (ECF), a construct that includes cognitive abilities such as planning, abstract reasoning, and the capacity to govern self-directed behavior, has been recently researched as an antecedent to many forms of psychopathology and has been implicated in alcohol-related aggression. This study was designed to examine whether differential ECF impairments can be noted on the ascending versus the descending limbs of the blood alcohol concentration curve.

Methods: Forty-one male university students participated in this study. Twenty-one subjects were given 1.32 ml of 95% alcohol per kilogram of body weight, mixed with orange juice, and the remaining 20 were given a placebo. Participants were randomly assigned to either an ascending or descending blood alcohol group and were tested on six tests of ECF on their assigned limb. Subjective mood data were also collected.

Results: Intoxicated participants on both limbs demonstrated ECF impairment; the descending-limb group showed greater impairment than their ascending-limb counterparts. Intoxicated subjects were significantly more anxious at baseline than placebo subjects. The introduction of this covariate nullified any significant differences in subjective mood found on either limb of the blood alcohol concentration curve, but ECF impairments remained robust.

Conclusions: Our results support the conclusion that alcohol negatively affects cognitive performance and has a differential effect on the descending versus the ascending limb of the blood alcohol concentration curve. The latter finding may have important ramifications relating to the detrimental consequences of alcohol intoxication.