Research on alcohol dependency and addiction has revealed that alcohol misuse (AUD) and other risky behaviors are influenced by several factors, including reduced working memory capacity (WMC) and impulsivity. But how these are all related is unclear. For instance, does diminished WMC lead to AUD which in turn increases impulsivity? Or does WMC elevate impulsivity which then influences risk for AUD? In an attempt to better clarify this relationship, Rachel L. Gunn and Peter R. Finn of the Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences at Indiana University in Indiana recently conducted a study testing the correlation between WMC, impulsivity, and AUD in a sample of 474 young adults with varying degrees of alcohol problems.
The study revealed that all three factors of WMC, AUD, and impulsivity were all robustly associated. The analysis suggested that individuals with lower WMC may have higher levels of impulsivity than those with high WMC, evidenced by poor decision making despite previous outcomes. In other words, even though some individuals may be well aware of the negative consequences of their prior decision related to risk taking behavior, they may still choose to make the same impulsive, rash decisions because of impaired WMC. This may increase their vulnerability to AUDs and other negative outcomes related to risky activities. In this study, Gunn and Finn also found that the more impulsive the participants were, the more severe the symptoms of AUD.
The authors also theorize that a bidirectional relationship may exist between AUD and WMC. Chronic use of alcohol may impair cognitive resources and lead to erosion of WMC, which can than increase impulsivity and further risk taking. Overall, these results clearly demonstrate that diminished WMC increases impulsivity and vulnerability to AUDs. The authors hope that future work addresses this relationship in a more diversely aged sample of participants. They added, “Different patterns of association between WMC, impulsivity, and alcohol problems may be present in late childhood, earlier adolescence, or middle age.”
Gunn, Rachel L., and Peter R. Finn. (2013). Impulsivity partially mediates the association between reduced working memory capacity and alcohol problems. Alcohol 47.1 (2013): 3-8. ProQuest. Web.
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