The Selective Effects of Alcohol on Automatic and Effortful Memory Processes

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Automatic and effortful memory processes were evaluated in a 2-session, within-subjects design involving an alcohol challenge and a no-alcohol condition. Free recall of a 90-word list measured effortful processing. Estimation of word frequency from the same list measured automatic processing. Acute intoxication was hypothesized to diminish effortful but not automatic memory processes. Healthy, male volunteers (n = 36) completed the 2 conditions 1 week apart. Presentation frequency influenced both free recall and frequency estimation, with both measures increasing as presentation frequency increased. Free recall was significantly lower in the alcohol than in the no-alcohol condition, but frequency estimation was not differentially affected. The data showed that an alcohol challenge dissociated automatic and effortful memory processes in volunteers. The authors discuss potential neurobiological substrates that may account for alcohol's selective disruption of effortful, verbal, episodic memory processing.

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