Background: Chronic alcoholism is known to impair episodic memory function, but the specific nature of this impairment is still unclear. Moreover, it has never been established whether episodic memory deficit in alcoholism is an intrinsic memory deficit or whether it has an executive origin. Thus, the objectives are to specify which episodic memory processes are impaired early in abstinence from alcohol and to determine whether they should be regarded as genuine memory deficits or rather as the indirect consequences of executive impairments.
Methods: Forty recently detoxified alcoholic inpatients at alcohol entry treatment and 55 group-matched controls underwent a neuropsychological assessment of episodic memory and executive functions. The episodic memory evaluation consisted of 3 tasks complementing each other designed to measure the different episodic memory components (learning, storage, encoding and retrieval, contextual memory, and autonoetic consciousness) and 5 executive tasks testing capacities of organization, inhibition, flexibility, updating, and integration.
Results: Compared with control subjects, alcoholic patients presented impaired learning abilities, encoding processes, retrieval processes, contextual memory and autonoetic consciousness. However, there was no difference between the 2 groups regarding the storage capacities assessed by the rate of forgetting. Concerning executive functions, alcoholic subjects displayed deficits in each executive task used. Nevertheless, stepwise regression analyses showed that only performances on fluency tasks were significantly predictive of some of the episodic memory disorders (learning abilities for 40%, encoding processes for 20%, temporal memory for 21%, and state of consciousness associated with memories for 26%) in the alcoholic group.
Discussion: At alcohol treatment entry, alcoholic patients present genuine episodic memory deficits that cannot be regarded solely as the consequences of executive dysfunctions. These results are in accordance with neuroimaging findings showing hippocampal atrophy. Moreover, given the involvement of episodic memory and executive functions in alcohol treatment, these data could have clinical implications.