September 4, 2006
Mental Abilities Can Fully Recover from Alcoholism
By Amy Norton
NEW YORK -- Recovering alcoholics who manage to abstain for the long haul can fully recover mental functions damaged by excessive drinking, a new study suggests.
Researchers found that 48 men and women who'd been abstinent for several years performed as well as non-alcoholic adults on tests of memory, attention, verbal skills and other cognitive functions.
There was some difference between the two groups on tests of spatial processing -- a skill that comes into use when a person needs to read a map or assemble a toy, for example -- but the deficit in the alcoholic group was subtle, and it's not clear how significant the finding is.
The overall results are "very positive" for recovering alcoholics, said lead study author Dr. George Fein of Neurobehavioral Research Inc. in Corte Madera, California.
"This says that full recovery is possible," he told Reuters Health.
That doesn't mean that all alcoholics will fully recover from any alcohol-induced brain damage, Fein pointed out.
To some extent, he explained, the positive findings may reflect "selection bias" -- meaning that people who had the potential to recover their cognitive abilities fully may have been more likely to participate in the study.
Still, Fein said, researchers had known "next to nothing" about recovering alcoholics' mental performance after years of abstinence. The current findings, published in the journal Alcoholism: Clinical & Experimental Research, at least suggest that fully recovery is attainable.
The study included 48 middle-aged adults who'd been abstinent for nearly 7 years, on average. Their performance on various standard cognitive tests was compared with that of a group of non-alcoholic adults the same age.
Overall, the researchers found no differences between the two groups. There was only "a suggestion there might be lingering deficits" on the spatial abilities, Fein said.
He noted that all of the study participants had stopped drinking before the age of 50, and it's not clear whether the findings might apply to people who achieve abstinence at older ages. Fein and his colleagues have been studying an older group of recovering alcoholics, and those findings, he said, should be published in the next year.
SOURCE: Alcoholism: Clinical & Experimental Research, September 2006.