To determine the influence of chronic ethanol intake on the central nervous system, we studied 40 asymptomatic, well-nourished, chronic alcoholics (mean age, 42.6 +/- 9.1 years) and 20 age-, sex-, and education-matched control subjects. Studies included neuropsychological testing, visual and short-latency auditory evoked potentials, and morphometric analysis of computed tomography scans. The mean daily ethanol consumption of the alcoholics was 204 gm over an average of 26.4 years. Compared to control subjects, chronic alcoholics exhibited a significant prolongation of the P100 latency of visual evoked potentials, and a prolongation and reduction in the amplitude of the latency of the V wave of short-latency auditory evoked potentials. These abnormalities were related to the lifetime dose of ethanol consumed. Brain morphometric analysis showed that alcoholics had a significantly greater degree of brain shrinkage with age, compared to control subjects. The cortical atrophy index correlated significantly with the lifetime ethanol consumption. Neuropsychological testing in alcoholics compared to controls revealed a significant impairment of frontal skills that was related to age, degree of scholarship, and the presence of frontal atrophy. In conclusion, well-nourished chronic alcoholics exhibited significant brain impairment, as demonstrated by neuropsychological testing, evoked potentials, and brain morphometric analysis, which was correlated with the lifetime dose of ethanol consumed.