The effects of heavy social drinking on executive function: a systematic review and meta-analytic study of existing literature and new empirical findings

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Previous investigations of executive function in alcohol dependent and in social drinkers have not always produced consistent results and have not utilised key indicators of recent theoretical models of Executive Function (EF). The present paper reports the results of two studies that seek to address these limitations.


Study 1 took the form of a systematic review and meta-analysis of studies examining EF in social drinkers. In Study 2, 41 participants completed an alcohol use inventory and were assigned to either light or heavy alcohol use via median split of average weekly dose. Participants completed measures of the fractionated executive processes of updating, shifting, inhibition and access to semantic memory.


Study 1 only identified seven studies of EF in social drinkers, and the mean effect size was non-significant. In study 2, the heavy alcohol use group performed worse on all measures of executive functioning except memory updating.


To our knowledge, this is the first systematic investigation of executive functioning in social drinkers. Given that the participants were non-treatment seeking social drinking students, the EF deficit in the heavy user group is particularly worrying and could increase the likelihood of developing an alcohol use disorder. Copyright © 2012 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.

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