Alcoholism Damages Social Skills, Particularly in Men

A team of American researchers has assessed the impact that alcoholism has on an important higher-level mental skill known as social cognition, concluding that the social cognition-related consequences of alcohol dependence vary according to factors that include the gender of the person under consideration.

Alcohol and Mental Function

Alcohol dependence (commonly known as alcoholism) is a brain-altering condition known for its ability to damage a range of the higher-level mental functions that distinguish human beings from other species. When regularly consumed, even in relatively small amounts, alcohol is a toxic substance capable of causing widespread disruption in organ systems throughout the body. Since any alcohol you drink travels through your bloodstream to your brain, this critical organ has a particular susceptibility to the substance’s harmful effects. One of the chief indications of damaging change inside the brain of an alcohol consumer is the onset of alcohol dependence, a condition characterized by lasting and dysfunctional chemical alteration in the part of the brain called the pleasure center, as well as by a range of additional, damaging alterations in brain function and behavior.

An excessive alcohol consumer can also experience a range of harmful brain changes not directly linked to the presence of alcoholism. A common collective term for these changes is alcohol-related brain impairment or ARBI. Potential manifestations of ARBI include damage in the part of the brain responsible for maintaining muscle control and damage in the brain areas responsible for maintaining such critical mental functions as the ability to think clearly, the ability to make and recall memories, the ability to make sound judgments, the ability to avoid acting on momentary impulses, the ability to maintain emotional control and the ability to plan effectively for the future.

Social Cognition

Social cognition is a general term used to describe the ability to do such things as recognize appropriate cues for social behavior, act appropriately in social situations, track ongoing changes in social situations, initiate and maintain social contact, respond appropriately to social feedback and otherwise understand or “get” the intricacies that characterize social interactions. As a rule, humans develop their social cognition skills (often known simply as social skills) along with their other higher-level mental faculties. Since the parts of the brain responsible for these faculties don’t fully mature until early adulthood, teens and younger children commonly partially lack the ability to behave in a socially fluid manner. Natural and externally imposed variations in social cognition skills mean that not all people have the same social abilities even after reaching adulthood.

Impact of Alcoholism

In the study published in Alcoholism: Clinical & Experimental Research, researchers from the Veterans Administration, Suffolk University and the Boston University School of Medicine used a screening tool called the Advanced Clinical Solutions Social Cognition module to test the impact that alcoholism has on the social cognition skills of men and women. The screening tool, which measures the ability to interpret social cues and facial expressions, was given to a group of 77 alcohol-dependent adults not currently consuming alcohol, as well as to a comparison group of 59 adults not affected by alcohol dependence. The members of both groups also took another screening tool, called the Wechsler Adult Intelligence Scale, which contains social cognition-related material.

After reviewing the results of the tests, the researchers concluded that the presence of alcoholism clearly leads to a meaningful reduction in the ability to use social cognition skills. Gender has an important impact on observed outcomes. For example, broadly speaking, alcohol-dependent men develop a greater level of social impairment than alcohol-dependent women. In addition, if they successfully stop drinking for extended periods of time, women have substantially greater chances of recovering at least some of their social cognition skills.

The study’s authors note that two factors have a particularly strong influence on the seriousness of the social cognition deficits found in people affected by alcoholism: the length of time over which a pattern of heavy drinking is maintained and the amount of alcohol consumed on the typical day. They believe their findings add social cognition problems to the list of known higher-level mental deficits linked to excessive alcohol intake. In addition, the authors emphasize the importance of gender to the severity of social deficits associated with alcoholism.

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