What’s Your Name Again?

Alcoholism starts to chip away at basic memory function until simple introductions are difficult

(RxWiki News) Alcoholism impairs the ability to form new associative memories. Learning people’s names upon introduction is vital to social and professional interactions.

A new study sets out to discover if alcoholics can be taught new learning techniques to help them overcome memory problems.

Brain scans may provide information about how alcohol abuse can damage associative memory.

"Talk to a doctor about treatment options for alcoholism"

Anne-Lise Pitel Ph.D., researcher in the department of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at the Stanford University School of Medicine, studies the affects of alcohol abuse on the brain. She led a team to take a look at a particular type of memory function, associative memory, in alcoholics.

Alcoholism can make the memory process dysfunctional. There are many different kinds of memory function, but they all fall into either short-term or long-term memory categories.

According to corresponding author of the study, Edith V. Sullivan Ph.D., professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Stanford University School of Medicine, “There are several memory systems and alcoholism does not disrupt all of them... Chronic alcohol consumption mainly affects episodic memory and working memory.”

Episodic memory is in the long-term memory category, and associative memory is a part of episodic memory. Episodic memories are memories of actions or events in the past, like a first date or a birthday party.

Associative memories have to do with putting a name to a face or an object.

Working memory is in the short-term category; this area of memory is designed for changes to be made to the information in this brief holding space and is then either thrown away or sent to the long-term memory.

Being given a password is a perfect example: once the password has entered the working memory, associative thoughts and concentration are required to engrave the password in the long-term memory for later recall.

Sullivan says, “Alcoholics have deficits of working memory resulting in difficulties like holding a phone number in mind while dialing it.”

Though it is already known in the scientific community that alcoholism affects associative learning, researchers are unsure why and if a different style of learning would enhance the associative learning abilities of alcoholics.

In the study researchers took 10 alcoholics and 10 non-alcoholics to perform a series of memory tests. Memories that are easy and basic to form, like whether the photo had a woman or a man in it, require shallow encoding. Memories that are more complex and require thought process, like whether the man in the photo looks honest, requires deep encoding.

Participants were shown photos and then asked questions to gauge their associative memory abilities. They were also given an MRI so that their brain structures may also be considered. Different learning techniques were shown to the alcoholic group to see if it would help them with the deep encoding part of the exercise.

Alcoholics in the study had trouble with both shallow and deep encoded recollection. The brain scans were compared to the results from the memory tests to see what parts of the brain that are damaged by alcoholism affect associative memory.

The deep encoding learning techniques did not help the alcoholics with their associative memory.

Further studies will be necessary to fully understand how alcoholism damages memory and if there are ways to reverse the damage.  

This study will be published in the journal, Alcoholism: Clinical & Experimental Research (ACER), July 2012. Funding for the study was provided by the National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism and the National Institute of Biomedical Imaging and Bioengineering, no conflicts of interest were found.

Review Date: 
April 14, 2012