Studies reveal that excessive drinking can have many negative effects on the brain. New findings now provide further evidence that alcoholics lose capacity for memory and often overestimate their abilities.
Researchers with the Universite de Caen/Basse-Normandie in France conducted research that centered around episodic and metamemory in known alcoholics.
The study’s corresponding author, Anne-Pascale Le Berre noted that the team “investigated episodic memory, which is the memory system in charge of the encoding, storage and retrieval of personally experienced events, and which is known to be impaired in chronic alcoholism.”
As with this current study, past research has also connected alcohol consumption to poor episodic encoding. An example of this poor encoding would be what is commonly known as a blackout, where a person’s ability to form new episodic memories is impaired.
Le Berre, a doctoral student in neuropsychology, also noted deficiencies with metamemory, the ability to adapt behavior to everyday life as well as efficiently utilize memory capabilities.
The participants in the study—already exhibiting long-term impairments to episodic memory—believed that their memory was as keen and on target as their nonalcoholic counterparts, researchers discovered.
“Metamemory can refer to the knowledge someone has about memory processing in general, and their own memory functioning in particular,” Le Berre said.
An example of this ability would be the knowledge a person has that a shopping list will be needed in the grocery store to aid with memory as well as an understanding of limitations to memory.
“This knowledge enables people to anticipate and implement appropriate strategies when performing a memory task. Metamemory can also refer to activity during a memory task. For example, a student first studies for an exam, and then evaluates his or her level of knowledge. If confident, he or she can stop studying, but if not, they can study more or adjust their learning strategy,” Le Berre said.
Participants in the study included 28 alcoholic patients and 28 people without alcohol issues. Issues of metamemory were specifically defined and measured by a “feeling of knowing” standard. This measure compares predictions about memory performance for future events to actual ability during the event.
“Regarding the [feeling-of-knowing] measure, alcoholic patients did not predict accurately their future memory performance,” Le Berre said. “They had a tendency to overestimate their memory capacities, believing themselves capable of recognizing the correct word when in fact they subsequently failed to do so.”
Le Berre suggested that the “overestimation” made by alcoholic participants translates into implications for treatment.
“For example, after being physically weaned off alcohol, patients suffering from chronic alcoholism often undergo cognitive-behavioral treatment involving methods during which they are taught to anticipate risky situations, that is, situations with a high risk of relapse,” she said, further adding that if “they overestimate their memory abilities, they will benefit only partially from their clinical treatment, since they will labor under the illusion that they have sufficiently consolidated this important clinical information for everyday life, whereas the reality is actually very different.”
Industry research suggests that there are a number of factors that determine how much alcohol will affect memory including: frequency and amount of drink; age; length of time as a drinker; genetics and general health status.
The study’s findings will be in the November print issue of the journal Alcoholism: Clinical & Experimental Research.