Background: Chronic alcoholism is known to impair the functioning of episodic and working memory, which may consequently reduce the ability to learn complex novel information. Nevertheless, semantic and cognitive procedural learning have not been properly explored at alcohol treatment entry, despite its potential clinical relevance. The goal of the present study was therefore to determine whether alcoholic patients, immediately after the weaning phase, are cognitively able to acquire complex new knowledge, given their episodic and working memory deficits.
Methods: Twenty alcoholic inpatients with episodic memory and working memory deficits at alcohol treatment entry and a control group of 20 healthy subjects underwent a protocol of semantic acquisition and cognitive procedural learning. The semantic learning task consisted of the acquisition of 10 novel concepts, while subjects were administered the Tower of Toronto task to measure cognitive procedural learning.
Results: Analyses showed that although alcoholic subjects were able to acquire the category and features of the semantic concepts, albeit slowly, they presented impaired label learning. In the control group, executive functions and episodic memory predicted semantic learning in the first and second halves of the protocol, respectively. In addition to the cognitive processes involved in the learning strategies invoked by controls, alcoholic subjects seem to attempt to compensate for their impaired cognitive functions, invoking capacities of short-term passive storage. Regarding cognitive procedural learning, although the patients eventually achieved the same results as the controls, they failed to automate the procedure. Contrary to the control group, the alcoholic groups' learning performance was predicted by controlled cognitive functions throughout the protocol.
Conclusion: At alcohol treatment entry, alcoholic patients with neuropsychological deficits have difficulty acquiring novel semantic and cognitive procedural knowledge. Compared with controls, they seem to use more costly learning strategies, which are nonetheless less efficient. These learning disabilities need to be considered when treatment requiring the acquisition of complex novel information is envisaged.