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Why some people just can't seem to pay attention

  • Chronic alcoholism has long been associated with neuropsychological deficits.
  • These deficits include an inability to maintain attention.
  • A recent study examined the cerebral basis of involuntary attention shifting in alcoholics and social drinkers.
  • Alcoholics seem to be more sensitive to task-irrelevant stimuli.
  • Alcoholics that begin to drink heavily in their teens seem to be particularly susceptible.

Involuntary attention shifting is a fundamental function that allows one to orient to unexpected and potentially harmful changes in the environment. As the noted Russian physiologist Ivan Pavlov observed, without this "what-is-it reflex," many species would not be able to survive in their environments. This observation remains just as true today in our brick-and-mortar times as it did when our ancestors had to hunt for their food. Yet despite its survival value, the involuntary switching of attention to environmental stimuli needs to be controlled when concentrating on goal-directed tasks. A study in the December issue of Alcoholism: Clinical & Experimental Research explores the cerebral connection between alcoholism and distractibility.

"Psychological tests may be used to reliably assess several cognitive functions and dysfunctions," explained Kimmo Alho, professor of psychology at the University of Helsinki. "However, many attention-related processes (such as the ability to selectively attend to certain stimuli in one's environment) or distractibility (the tendency to involuntarily switch attention to new stimuli in the environment) are quite difficult to measure objectively with such tests. One of the reasons for this is that attention is involved in several cognitive functions, such as perception and memory."

Researchers from Finland, Germany and Sweden used electroencephalogram (EEG) electrodes placed on the scalps of study participants (alcoholics and social drinkers) to r
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Contact: Jyrki Ahveninen, Ph.D. Candidate
jyrki.ahveninen@helsinki.fi
358-9-191-23761
Alcoholism: Clinical & Experimental Research
13-Dec-2000


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