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Thursday December 14, 2000
Alcohol Abuse Undermines Ability to Focus

By Suzanne Rostler

NEW YORK (Reuters Health) - Having trouble focusing on the report due in an hour? Can't concentrate on the details of your speech? New study findings suggest that too many years of hard drinking--not lack of sleep or writer's block--may be to blame.

According to researchers, chronic alcohol abuse may impair the biological mechanism that allows people to refocus their attention after a noisy distraction. Their study, published in the December issue of Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research, found that men who abused alcohol were not able to return to a task quickly after being interrupted by a sudden sound.

While nonalcoholics were also distracted by the sound, they were able to return to the task quickly, findings show.

``It has been consistently shown that the brain regions controlling attention and concentration are particularly sensitive to the effects of alcohol,'' Jyrki Ahveninen, from the University of Helsinki in Finland, told Reuters Health. ``Our study revealed a possible functional consequence of these brain effects.''

To investigate, Ahveninen and colleagues measured brain responses by attaching electrodes to the scalps of 20 male alcoholics and 20 men who drank occasionally. Individuals were told to discriminate between two different tones and to ignore occasional frequency changes in the same tones.

Alcoholics were more easily distracted and had trouble reorienting themselves to the original sound. And those who had abused alcohol the longest were the most easily distracted, the report indicates.

``Tentatively, this suggests that patients who begin to drink heavily in their teens are particularly susceptible to developing impairments in their brain circuits that are related to attention,'' Ahveninen said in a prepared statement.

``These findings might provide new insights into the origins of cognitive alcoholism,'' the authors conclude.

SOURCE: Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research 2000;24:1850-1854.

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