Background: It is still unclear whether episodic memory and executive functions capacities can return to normal in abstinent patients over a 6-month period. Furthermore, the role of interim drinking in cognitive recovery is still not well known. Finally, further research is required to specify the predictive value of cognitive abilities at initial testing in the treatment outcome (abstinence or relapse). The aims of the present study were therefore to measure changes in episodic memory and executive functions over a 6-month period in abstinent and relapsed alcoholics and to ascertain whether neuropsychological results at treatment entry can predict treatment outcome at follow-up.
Methods: Fifty-four alcoholic patients and 54 matched control subjects performed baseline neuropsychological tasks assessing episodic memory, executive functions, the slave systems of working memory and attentional abilities. At the follow-up session (i.e., 6 months later), episodic memory and 3 executive functions (inhibition, flexibility, and updating) were re-examined in the alcoholic patients.
Results: Results showed that over the 6-month interval, the abstainers' episodic memory and executive performances had returned to normal, whereas the relapsers performed lower than before in the flexibility task. Episodic memory and executive functions recovery was correlated, in abstainers, with drinking history and age respectively. Finally, there was no significant difference regarding neuropsychological scores at baseline between abstainers and relapsers.
Discussion: Over the 6-month interval, abstainers normalized episodic memory and executive performances whereas relapsers obtained executive results which were more severely impaired, emphasizing the influence of interim drinking on cognitive changes. Episodic memory, executive functions, the slave systems of working memory and attentional abilities did not appear to be reliable predictors of treatment outcome over a 6-month interval.