Sobering Conclusions: Alcoholism's Effects on Brain and Behavior

Sobering Conclusions
Reported by
Sibyl Shalo

Posted September 07, 2006

Presented By


Researchers have posited numerous hypotheses to explain the ways in which alcoholism affects the brain and behavior. Marlene Oscar Berman, a research career scientist at the Boston VA Medical Center, and director of the laboratory of neuropsychology at Boston University School of Medicine, has been working to test these hypotheses. In an April 17, 2006, meeting of the Academy's Psychology Section she shared observations from her experience in this field and summarized results of her studies.

Berman categorized her research into two areas. The first looks at models emphasizing the ways in which chronic alcoholism can make subjects vulnerable to premature aging. The second studies models emphasizing the vulnerability of specific brain regions, including the right hemispheric and frontal lobe systems. Berman emphasized that her research did not include active drinkers, but chronic alcoholic subjects who were sober, having abstained from drinking for at least a month.

Journal Articles

Assessing structural deficits

Pfefferbaum, A., E. Adalsteinsson & E. V. Sullivan. 2006. Supratentorial profile of white matter microstructural integrity in recovering alcoholic men and women. Biol. Psychiatry 59: 364-372. Epub 2005 Aug 25.

Pfefferbaum, A. & E. V. Sullivan. 2005. Disruption of brain white matter microstructure by excessive intracellular and extracellular fluid in alcoholism: evidence from diffusion tensor imaging. Neuropsychopharmacology 30: 423-432.

Rosenbloom, M., E. V. Sullivan & A. Pfefferbaum. 2003. Using magnetic resonance imaging and diffusion tensor imaging to assess brain damage in alcoholics. Alcohol Res. Health 27: 146-152.

Sullivan, E. V. & L. Marsh. 2003. Hippocampal volume deficits in alcoholic Korsakoff's syndrome. Neurology 61: 1716-1719.

Sullivan, E. V. & A. Pfefferbaum. 2005. Neurocircuitry in alcoholism: a substrate of disruption and repair. Psychopharmacology (Berl.) 180: 583-594. Epub Sep 14.

Assessing functional deficits

Albert, M., N. Butters, S. Rogers, et al. 1982. A preliminary report: nutritional levels and cognitive performance in chronic alcohol abusers. Drug Alcohol Depend. 9: 131-142.

Bowirrat, A. & M. Oscar-Berman. 2005. Relationship between dopaminergic neurotransmission, alcoholism, and reward deficiency syndrome. American Journal of Medical Genetics Part B: Neuropsychiatric Genetics 132B: 29-37.

DeFranco, C., A. R. Tarbox & E. J. McLaughlin. 1985. Cognitive deficits as a function of years of alcohol abuse. Am. J. Drug Alcohol Abuse 11: 279-293.

Desmond, J. E., S. H. Chen, E. DeRosa, et al. 2003. Increased frontocerebellar activation in alcoholics during verbal working memory: an fMRI study. Neuroimage 19: 1510-1520.

Fama, R., A. Pfefferbaum & E. V. Sullivan. 2006. Visuoperceptual learning in alcoholic Korsakoff syndrome. Alcohol. Clin. Exp. Res. 30: 680-687.

Jernigan, T. L., A. L. Ostergaard, I. Law, et al. 1998. Brain activation during word identification and word recognition. Neuroimage 8: 93-105.

Oscar-Berman, M. & Bowirrat, A. 2005. Genetic influences in emotional dysfunction and alcoholism-related brain damage. Neuropsychiatric Disease and Treatment 1: 1-19.

Oscar-Berman, M. & R. J. Ellis. 1987. Cognitive deficits related to memory impairments in alcoholism. Recent Dev. Alcohol. 5: 59-80.

Oscar-Berman, M., S. M. Kirkley, D. A. Gansler & A. Couture. 2004. Comparisons of Korsakoff and non-Korsakoff alcoholics on neuropsychological tests of prefrontal brain functioning. Alcohol. Clin. Exp. Res. 28: 667-675.

Oscar-Berman, M. & K. Marinkovic. 2003. Alcoholism and the brain: an overview. Alcohol Res. Health 27: 125-133. Full Text

Page, R. D. & M. F. Cleveland. 1987. Cognitive dysfunction and aging among male alcoholics and social drinkers. Alcohol. Clin. Exp. Res. 11: 376-384.

Schaeffer, K. W., O. A. Parsons & A. L. Errico. 1989. Performance deficits on tests of problem solving in alcoholics: cognitive or motivational impairment? J. Subst. Abuse 1: 381-392.

Schandler, S. L., A. D. Clegg, C. S. Thomas & M. J. Cohen. 1996. Visuospatial information processing in intoxicated, recently detoxified, and long-term abstinent alcoholics. J. Subst. Abuse 8: 321-333.

Sullivan, E. V. 2003. Compromised pontocerebellar and cerebellothalamocortical systems: speculations on their contributions to cognitive and motor impairment in nonamnesic alcoholism. Alcohol. Clin. Exp. Res. 27: 1409-1419.

Sullivan, E. V., R. Fama, M. J. Rosenbloom & A. Pfefferbaum. 2002. A profile of neuropsychological deficits in alcoholic women. Neuropsychology 16: 74-83.

Sequelae to abstinence

Beatty, W.W., R. Tivis, H.D. Stott, et al. 2000. Neuropsychological deficits in sober alcoholics: influences of chronicity and recent alcohol consumption. Alcohol. Clin. Exp. Res. 24: 149-154.

Fama, R., A. Pfefferbaum & E. V. Sullivan. 2004. Perceptual learning in detoxified alcoholic men: contributions from explicit memory, executive function, and age. Alcohol. Clin. Exp. Res. 28: 1657-1665.

Fein, G., L. Bachman, S. Fisher & L. Davenport. 1990. Cognitive impairments in abstinent alcoholics. West. J. Med. 152: 531-537. Full Text

Mann, K., A. Gunther, F. Stetter & K. Ackermann. 1999. Rapid recovery from cognitive deficits in abstinent alcoholics: a controlled test-retest study. Alcohol Alcohol. 34: 567-574.

Munro, C.A., J. Saxton & M. A. Butters. 2000. The neuropsychological consequences of abstinence among older alcoholics: a cross-sectional study. Alcohol. Clin. Exp. Res. 24: 1510-1516.

Rourke, S. B. & I. Grant. 1999. The interactive effects of age and length of abstinence on the recovery of neuropsychological functioning in chronic male alcoholics: a 2-year follow-up study. J. Int. Neuropsychol. Soc. 5: 234-246.

Sullivan, E. V., M. J. Rosenbloom & A. Pfefferbaum. 2000. Pattern of motor and cognitive deficits in detoxified alcoholic men. Alcohol. Clin. Exp. Res. 24: 611-621.

Zinn, S., R. Stein & H. S. Swartzwelder. 2004. Executive functioning early in abstinence from alcohol. Alcohol. Clin. Exp. Res. 28: 1338-1346.

Research issues

Donovan, D. M., D. R. Kivlahan & R. D.Walker. 1984. Clinical limitations of neuropsychological testing in predicting treatment outcome among alcoholics. Alcohol. Clin. Exp. Res. 8: 470-475.

Harper, C., T. Garrick, I. Matsumoto, et al. 2003. How important are brain banks for alcohol research? Alcohol. Clin. Exp. Res. 27: 310-323.

Parsons, O. A. 1998. Neurocognitive deficits in alcoholics and social drinkers: a continuum? Alcohol. Clin. Exp. Res. 22: 954-961.


Marlene Oscar Berman, PhD

Boston University School of Medicine
Boston VA Medical Center
email | web site | publications

Marlene Oscar Berman holds the academic ranks of professor of neurology (neuropsychology), professor of psychiatry, and professor of anatomy and neurobiology at the Boston University School of Medicine. She is also the director of the Laboratory of Neuropsychology, and director of the behavioral neuroscience PhD program, involved in training graduate students and medical students throughout the Boston University community. The PhD program is coordinated with the Department of Veterans Affairs Healthcare System (VA) in Boston. At the VA, Berman is a career research scientist working on the neuropsychological sequelae of brain damage.

Berman has been on the national lectureship circuit of the scientific honor society, Sigma Xi, and was a Fulbright Senior Scholar in Australia. She has served on numerous committees of the American Psychological Association, the Fulbright Foundation, the Massachusetts Psychological Association, the New England Psychological Association, and the Massachusetts Neuropsychological Society. She has been a member and chairperson of initial review groups for DHHS, and a program specialist in alcohol and drug dependence for the VA nationally.

Sibyl Shalo

Sibyl Shalo is a medical, pharmaceutical, and healthcare business writer based in Manhattan and Warwick, New York.