Executive Functioning Early in Abstinence From Alcohol

Authors

  • Sandra Zinn,

    1. Research and Development, Durham Veterans Affairs Medical Center, Durham, North Carolina.
    2. Health Services Research and Development, Durham Veterans Affairs Medical Center, Durham, North Carolina.
    3. Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences, Duke University Medical Center, Durham, North Carolina.
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  • Roy Stein,

    1. Mental Health Services, Durham Veterans Affairs Medical Center, Durham, North Carolina.
    2. Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences, Duke University Medical Center, Durham, North Carolina.
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  • H Scott Swartzwelder

    Corresponding author
    1. Research and Development, Durham Veterans Affairs Medical Center, Durham, North Carolina.
    2. Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences, Duke University Medical Center, Durham, North Carolina.
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  • Supported by the US Department of Veterans Affairs, Veterans Health Administration, Health Services (Program 824) Funds, a Rehabilitation R&D Career Development Award (Program 124) (SZ), a VA Merit Review Grant (HSS), a VA Senior Research Career Scientist Award, and NIAAA Grant R01 (HSS).

Reprint requests: H. Scott Swartzwelder, PhD, VA Medical Center, 508 Fulton St., Bldg. 16, Room 24, Durham, NC 27705; Fax: 919-286-4662; E-mail: hss@duke.edu.

Abstract

Background: Executive dysfunction is among the cognitive impairments that may persist after abstinence in alcohol-dependent persons. The type(s) and extent of executive dysfunction early in abstinence have not been well characterized, but they may have important implications for the evolution of behavioral treatment strategies.

Methods: To determine which aspects of executive functioning were impaired in early abstinence, we administered memory and executive function tests to veterans who successively presented for treatment at an outpatient substance abuse clinic. We then compared the neuropsychological performance of these recovering alcoholics (n= 27) with that of age-matched primary care outpatients (n= 18). We also examined group differences in self-evaluation of cognitive decline and evaluated associations between drinking history and cognitive impairment in the index group.

Results: We found that the normal and alcohol-dependent groups differed on abstract reasoning, memory discrimination, and effectiveness on timed tasks. Patients in the alcohol-dependent sample were also more likely to perceive themselves as cognitively impaired. It is interesting to note that the duration of alcohol use did not relate to neuropsychological test performance, but recent quantity consumed and days of sobriety were associated with nonverbal abstract reasoning ability.

Conclusions: Executive functions are impaired early in abstinence and should, therefore, be taken into account when early behavioral treatments are being developed.

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