In Brief

Formerly alcoholic women show poor balance even after years of sobriety and even after their memory and motor skills improve, suggests a longitudinal study of alcohol's effects on women published in the July issue of the APA journal Neuropsychology (Vol. 18, No. 3).

In the study, psychologist Edith V. Sullivan, PhD, of the Stanford University School of Medicine, and colleagues Adolf Pfefferbaum, MD, and Margaret Rosenbloom, both of Stanford and SRI International, recruited 43 alcoholic women from various substance abuse treatment programs and health centers who had stayed sober for three months and a control group of 47 female teetotalers and light drinkers. They gave both groups a battery of tests measuring short-term memory, motor ability in their arms and standing and walking balance because both temporary intoxication and long-term alcoholism are known impair such skills.

The researchers standardized a drink as containing 13.6 grams of alcohol; in their lifetimes, the recovering alcoholic women group had drunk an average of 522 kilograms of alcohol--15 times as much as the control group. The researchers retested the alcoholic women one year and four years later and the control group three years later.

At the initial testing, alcoholic women scored lower on the National Adult Reading Test IQ and tests of physical balance. A year later, Sullivan retested 23 of the 43 alcoholic women, but 14 of those women had completely avoided alcohol during the interim.

Still, the nine relapsing women--defined as those who had at least one drink between testing periods--performed as well as the 14 abstainers on the tests, even though all 23 scored below average levels set for their ages. The results indicate that abstaining from alcohol for one year might not be enough time for those deteriorated skills to recover.

At the four-year retest, 14 of the original 43 women returned, 11 of whom tested at the end of the first year; 13 had refrained from alcohol for longer than 30 months. This time the group showed significant improvement on short-term memory tests, scoring near control-group levels. But the recovering alcoholic women showed no signs of improvement on tests of balance.

The results indicate that the brain's recovery from alcoholism isn't uniform, Sullivan says. While their concentration and motor control has improved, these women might still suffer from disrupted balance and have trouble walking on uneven terrain.

"The brain regions involved in cognitive functions differ from those important for standing balance, which are dependent, in large part, on the condition of the cerebellar vermis, a brain structure especially vulnerable to untoward effects of alcoholism," Sullivan says. "The lack of recovery of standing balance may indicate a permanent loss of function."