Executive functions in alcohol-dependence: A theoretically grounded and integrative exploration

Drug Alcohol Depend. 2017 Aug 1:177:39-47. doi: 10.1016/j.drugalcdep.2017.03.018. Epub 2017 May 19.


Background: Alcohol-dependence is related to large-scale cognitive impairments, particularly for executive functions (EF). These deficits persist even after long-term abstinence and have a major impact on patients' everyday life and relapse risk. Earlier studies, based on multi-determined tasks, mostly focused on inhibition and did not offer a theoretically-grounded and exhaustive view of the differential deficit across EF. The present paper proposes a model-based exploration of EF in alcohol-dependent individuals (ALC), to precisely compare the specific deficit related to each executive subcomponent.

Methods: Forty-seven recently detoxified ALC were compared to 47 matched healthy participants on a nine-tasks validated neuropsychological battery, simultaneously exploring and comparing the three main executive subcomponents (shifting, updating, and inhibition). Psychopathological comorbidities were also controlled for.

Results: Reaction time indexes revealed a global slowing down among ALC, whatever the EF explored. Accuracy indexes revealed a moderate deficit for inhibition tasks but a massive impairment for shifting and updating ones. Complementary analyses indicated that the executive deficits observed were centrally related to alcohol-dependence, while comorbid depressive symptoms appeared to intensify the deficits observed.

Conclusions: By offering a direct comparison between the three major EF, these results showed that alcohol-related executive deficits extend beyond the classically described inhibition impairment. This impairment encompasses each EF subcomponent, as ALC actually presented stronger deficits for updating and shifting abilities. This first observation of a multifaceted EF deficit stresses the need for an individualized evaluation and rehabilitation of EF during and/or after the detoxification process.

Keywords: Alcohol-dependence; Executive functions; Inhibition; Shifting; Updating.

MeSH terms

  • Alcoholism / complications
  • Alcoholism / psychology*
  • Case-Control Studies
  • Cognitive Dysfunction / complications
  • Cognitive Dysfunction / psychology*
  • Executive Function*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Models, Psychological
  • Neuropsychological Tests
  • Reaction Time