Drug-cue associations can have a powerful influence over individuals with drug and alcohol use disorders, often leading to relapse in those attempting to stay abstinent. Few studies have investigated how drugs affect learning or memory for drug-associated stimuli in humans. This study examined the direct effects of alcohol on memory for images of alcohol-related beverages, such as beer bottles or liquor glasses, or neutral beverages, such as water bottles or soda cans, in social drinkers.
Researchers assigned subjects to one of three conditions: one group (n=20) received an intoxicating dose of alcohol (0.8 g/kg) before viewing visual images, called the Encoding condition; a second group (n=20) received the same amount of alcohol immediately after viewing them, called the Consolidation condition. A third group (n=19) received a placebo both before and after viewing the images, called the Control condition. Memory retrieval was tested exactly 48 hours later, in a drug-free state.
Results indicate that alcohol impairs memory in the Encoding condition and enhances memory in the Consolidation condition. However, individual differences in sensitivity to alcohol's positive rewarding effects are associated with a greater tendency to remember alcohol-related environmental stimuli encountered while intoxicated. In other words, these individuals may form stronger memory associations with alcohol-related stimuli, which may then strengthen their drinking behavior and/or place them at a greater risk of relapse if they decide to stop drinking.
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