Background: Most studies reporting cognitive deficits in chronic alcoholics have relied on treatment samples (predominantly men) from inpatient or outpatient treatment facilities. However, the majority of chronic alcoholics have never been in treatment and there is increasing evidence that treated and non-treatment-seeking alcoholic samples come from different populations with regard to alcohol use and other factors related to the severity of disease. Accordingly, in the present study, we assessed a broad range of cognitive functions in 55 treatment-naïve alcohol-dependent (TNAD) individuals and 55 nonalcoholic controls (NAC) matched for age and education. In addition, a goal of the present study was to assess potential differential effects of alcohol dependence on cognitive performance in TNAD men and women.
Methods: Comprehensive neuropsychological assessment was conducted on TNAD and NAC. The following 9 performance domains, each consisting of multiple measures, were examined: attention, auditory working memory, verbal processing, abstraction/cognitive flexibility, psychomotor function, immediate memory, delayed memory, reaction time, and spatial processing.
Results: Analysis revealed no cognitive deficits in TNAD, relative to NAC, in any of the 9 cognitive domains. TNAD performed better than NAC in the attention domain. In addition, while men performed better than women in the spatial domain, there were no TNAD versus NAC group by gender interactions for any domain.
Conclusions: Our results extend findings that TNAD show minimal behavioral effects of chronic heavy alcohol use and are consistent with the contention that TNAD are relatively cognitively intact. Differences between our findings and those often reported for alcoholics recruited from treatment settings may be understood in terms of differences in alcohol use, along with genetic, psychiatric, and nutritional factors. In addition, the lack of differential effects of alcohol dependence on male and female cognitive performance in our study suggests that TNAD men and women do not differ in the severity of cerebral consequences of alcohol dependence.