Background: Reduced P3b event-related potentials (ERP) amplitude during visual target detection in alcoholics is a robust phenomenon. However, this finding is based primarily on samples of treated alcoholics, who comprise only about 25% of alcoholics. We studied visual target detection in a treatment-naïve alcohol-dependent sample (TNAD) versus age and gender comparable nonalcoholic controls (NAC) to investigate whether reduced P3 amplitudes generalize to TNAD.
Methods: EEGs were recorded from 74 TNAD and 63 age and gender comparable NAC during visual target detection. ANOVA was applied at midline electrodes to amplitudes and latencies of N2 and P3 ERP components during target and rare nontarget conditions.
Results: Treatment-naïve alcohol-dependent subjects had a modestly lower P3b amplitude (p = 0.05) and a more robustly lower N2b amplitude (p = 0.29). In the target condition, TNAD showed a significant reduction in P3b amplitude and a larger reduction in N2b amplitude, with these phenomena being independent of each other. Latencies to P3b, N2b, and P3a were earlier in TNAD than NAC, with this effect correlating with our reported effect of better attention in TNAD versus NAC.
Conclusion: The significant reduction in P3b amplitude in TNAD suggests that this phenomenon is present in TNAD, but dramatically smaller than that observed in treated samples (we reported an effect over 5 times as large in treated long-term abstinent alcoholics). The N2b amplitude reduction (not present in long-term abstinent alcoholics) may reflect the effects of active alcohol abuse. Finally, the shorter latencies of these components in TNAD is associated with better scores on tests of attention and may reflect compensatory attentional effort in the context of active drinking.