Widespread and sustained cognitive deficits in alcoholism: a meta-analysis

Addict Biol. 2013 Mar;18(2):203-13. doi: 10.1111/j.1369-1600.2011.00418.x. Epub 2012 Jan 20.


The cognitive repercussions of alcohol dependence are well documented. However, the literature remains somewhat ambiguous with respect to which distinct cognitive functions are more susceptible to impairment in alcoholism and to how duration of abstinence affects cognitive recovery. Some theories claim alcohol negatively affects specific cognitive functions, while others assert that deficits are more diffuse in nature. This is the first meta-analysis to examine cognition in alcohol abuse/dependence and the duration of abstinence necessary to achieve cognitive recovery. A literature search yielded 62 studies that assessed cognitive dysfunction among alcoholics. Effect size estimates were calculated using the Comprehensive Meta-Analysis V2, for the following 12 cognitive domains: intelligence quotient, verbal fluency/language, speed of processing, working memory, attention, problem solving/executive functions, inhibition/impulsivity, verbal learning, verbal memory, visual learning, visual memory and visuospatial abilities. Within these 12 domains, three effect size estimates were calculated based on abstinence duration. The three groups were partitioned into short- (< 1 month), intermediate- (2 to 12 months) and long- (> 1 year) term abstinence. Findings revealed moderate impairment across 11 cognitive domains during short-term abstinence, with moderate impairment across 10 domains during intermediate term abstinence. Small effect size estimates were found for long-term abstinence. These results suggest significant impairment across multiple cognitive functions remains stable during the first year of abstinence from alcohol. Generally, dysfunction abates by 1 year of sobriety. These findings support the diffuse brain hypothesis and suggest that cognitive dysfunction may linger for up to an average of 1 year post-detoxification from alcohol.

Publication types

  • Meta-Analysis
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Alcoholism / complications
  • Alcoholism / physiopathology*
  • Alcoholism / rehabilitation
  • Attention / physiology
  • Brain / physiopathology
  • Cognition Disorders / etiology
  • Cognition Disorders / physiopathology*
  • Executive Function / physiology
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Intelligence / physiology
  • Male
  • Memory / physiology
  • Neuropsychological Tests / statistics & numerical data
  • Psychomotor Performance / physiology
  • Recovery of Function*
  • Temperance / statistics & numerical data*
  • Time Factors