A new study has found that smoking may hamper alcoholics' neurocognitive recovery during their first six to nine months period of alcohol abstinence.
About 50 to 90 percent of individuals in North America who take alcoholism treatment are chronic smokers. The new findings show that smoking may interfere with the neurocognitive recovery of these people during their first six to nine months of abstinence from alcohol.
The results are published in the July issue of Alcoholism: Clinical & Experimental Research.
"There are several possible explanations for the concurrent use of alcohol and tobacco products," said Timothy C. Durazzo, assistant adjunct professor in the department of radiology at the University of California San Francisco, and corresponding author for the study.
"Nicotine and alcohol may enhance each other's rewarding properties; nicotine may decrease some of alcohol's negative effects on cognition and motor incoordination; paired use of nicotine and alcohol may produce a strong association between the two substances such that the use of one leads to cravings for the other; and there may exist a genetic vulnerability for concurrent active cigarette smoking and alcohol dependence," Durazzo added.
Durazzo added that earlier research had shown that chronically smoking alcoholics display poorer performance in several areas of cognitive functioning than non-smokers when they are still actively drinking or after a short period of sobriety.
"However, it was unknown if non-smoking alcoholics and alcoholics who continued to smoke during abstinence would show comparable levels of recovery after a sustained period of sobriety," he said.
Study authors recruited three groups: 13 non-smoking recovering alcoholics (12 males, 1 female), 12 actively smoking recovering alcoholics (11 males, 1 female), and 22 non-smoking light-drinking "controls" (20 males, 2 females). The researchers assessed the neurocognitive changes that occurred in the two recovering-alcoholic groups during six to nine months of abstinence from alcohol, comparing their neurocognitive performance with that of the controls.
"Non-smoking alcoholics showed a significantly greater level of recovery than smoking alcoholics in the areas of mental efficiency, higher-level reasoning and problem-solving, visual-spatial processing skills, and working or short-term memory," said Durazzo.
"Although smoking alcoholics in the study improved significantly in auditory-verbal memory and processing speed over six to nine months of abstinence from alcohol, the level of their recovery was not greater than the non-smoking alcoholics. It is also of note that in the smoking alcohol group, those with greater nicotine dependence and longer smoking histories showed less recovery in several areas of functioning," he added.
Sara Jo Nixon, a professor in the department of psychiatry at the University of Florida, said that sober alcoholics, who has no history of cigarette smoking, attained an improved revitalization of vital mental functions during the first six to nine months of constant abstinence.
"In short, abstinent alcoholics without a history of cigarette smoking achieved better recovery of critical mental functions during the first six to nine months of sustained sobriety. [These] differential outcomes demonstrate the importance of considering the behavioral impact of continued cigarette smoking among alcoholics on long-term recovery of function," Nixon said.
Durazzo said that the findings imply that consideration of smoking status is significant to the evaluation of cognitive revival.
"Even though our results should be considered preliminary, they suggest that consideration of smoking status is relevant to the assessment of cognitive recovery. More generally, chronic smoking may impact neurocognition in other conditions where is it a prevalent behavior, such as schizophrenia-spectrum and mood disorders. Further research is imperative," he said.