Component processes of memory in alcoholism: pattern of compromise and neural substrates

Handb Clin Neurol. 2014;125:211-25. doi: 10.1016/B978-0-444-62619-6.00013-6.


Initially, alcohol-related memory deficits were considered only through the prism of Korsakoff's syndrome (KS). It is now clear, however, that chronic alcohol consumption results in memory disorders in alcoholics without ostensible neurologic complications, such as Wernicke's encephalopathy and KS. Most of the principal memory components are affected, including working memory, episodic memory, semantic memory, perceptual memory, and procedural memory. The extent of those cognitive impairments depends on several factors, such as age, gender, nutritional status, and psychiatric comorbidity. While memory disorders, especially episodic memory deficits, are largely definitive in patients with KS, recovery of memory abilities has been described with abstinence in uncomplicated alcoholics. Neuropsychologic impairments, and especially memory disorders, must be evaluated at alcohol treatment entry because they could impede patients from benefiting fully from cognitive and behavioral treatment approaches for alcohol dependence. Screening of memory deficits could also enable clinicians to detect, among alcoholics without ostensible neurologic complications, those at risk of developing permanent and debilitating amnesia that features KS.

Keywords: Korsakoff's syndrome; alcoholism; episodic memory; perceptual memory; procedural memory; recovery; semantic memory; working memory.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Alcohol Amnestic Disorder / diagnosis
  • Alcohol Amnestic Disorder / metabolism
  • Alcohol Amnestic Disorder / psychology
  • Alcoholism / diagnosis*
  • Alcoholism / metabolism
  • Alcoholism / psychology
  • Animals
  • Brain / metabolism
  • Brain / pathology*
  • Humans
  • Memory / physiology
  • Memory Disorders / diagnosis*
  • Memory Disorders / metabolism
  • Memory Disorders / psychology
  • Nerve Net / metabolism
  • Nerve Net / pathology*
  • Wernicke Encephalopathy / diagnosis
  • Wernicke Encephalopathy / metabolism
  • Wernicke Encephalopathy / psychology