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Certain components of the brain's 'executive functions' are compromised early in abstinence

  • Executive functions are those capacities, most commonly linked to the frontal cortex, that guide complex behavior over time through planning, decision-making and response control.
  • A new study has found that certain cognitive components of executive functioning are compromised early in abstinence.
  • These results have implications for the development of new strategies used early in treatment.

Years of heavy alcohol consumption are known to impair abstract thinking, cognitive flexibility and persistence, and inhibition of competing responses. These abilities are among those generally referred to as executive functions, cognitive operations linked to the frontal cortex that guide complex behavior over time through planning, decision-making and response control. Findings published in the September issue of Alcoholism: Clinical & Experimental Research indicate that several domains of executive functioning are significantly compromised early in abstinence, a time during which patients are currently required to draw upon their cognitive abilities as part of the treatment process.

The term executive functioning is a business analogy, where the executive monitors all of the different departments so that the company/brain/person can move forward in as efficient and effective a way as possible, said corresponding author H. Scott Swartzwelder, professor of psychiatry at Duke University Medical Center and a senior research career scientist at the Durham VA Medical Center. So, in terms of real-world activity, executive functioning has everything to do with who we are, how we organize our lives, and how we plan and then execute those plans.

Executive functions are very, very important to everyday living, added Marlene Oscar Berman, professor of neurology, psychiatry, and anatomy & neurobiology at Boston University Medical School, and research career scientist at the Boston Veteran Affairs Healthcare System. They ar
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