Even moderate alcohol consumption affects your episodic foresight

A new study published in the Journal of Psychopharmacology found that drinking alcohol can impair the ability to make decisions and be aware of the future. The study concludes that alcohol intoxication at moderate levels can impair episodic forecasting ability. This may have implications for understanding different maladaptive behaviors commonly associated with acute alcohol consumption.

Episodic foresight is the ability to mentally project oneself into a hypothetical future scenario and imagine living it. It involves the ability to create a mental simulation of a future event, based on past experiences and current goals and desires, in order to plan and achieve future goals.

Episodic foresight is essential for individuals to make decisions that will benefit them in the future, helping to avoid potential problems and securing future rewards, which is essential for independent living. Unfortunately, alcohol intoxication can impair cognitive functions, including retrospective memory and executive functions, resulting in maladaptive behaviors.

The alcoholic myopia theory posits that the social and anxiolytic effects of alcohol stem from its narrowing of perceptual and cognitive function, possibly through a decrease in episodic foresight. Research indicates that the intentional practice of episodic foresight could potentially have therapeutic benefits, including decreasing cravings for alcohol while decreasing our tendency to discount future rewards.

In their new study, Morgan Elliott and colleagues set out to explore the effects of sudden alcohol intoxication on this cognitive skill. The study recruited 124 healthy participants between the ages of 18 and 37 who consumed an average of 2 to 36 standard units per week. Participants were randomly divided into two groups using an independent, double-blind group design: alcohol group (n=61 with 30 male participants) and placebo group (n=63 with 32 males).

The alcohol group received a dose of 0.6 g per kg body weight in 10 cups of 50 ml portions containing vodka, tonic water and lime cordial. Participants consumed one cup every three minutes until all 10 drinks were consumed, with two additional rounds of complementary drinks given approximately 80 minutes and 120 minutes after the test to maintain an even blood alcohol level. On the other hand, the placebo groups received 500 ml divided into 10 cups containing only tonic water and lime cordial.

Participants in the experimental group maintained a state of intoxication while playing the Virtual Week-Foresight game to assess their ability to anticipate future events and plan appropriately. VW-Foresight is a board game-like activity where participants use a computer mouse to move a token around the board. Each circuit around the board represents a virtual day. Participants make decisions about daily activities and engage in episodic forecasting tasks as they move across the board.

The results suggest that alcohol consumption at moderate levels, slightly above the legal driving limit in Australia, leads to less acquisition and use of the items needed to solve problems as well as less probability of using them later. Such impaired foresight can lead individuals to prioritize immediate needs over long-term goals, resulting in risky sexual behavior, aggression, or drunk driving.

Alcohol consumption may lead to decreased episodic foresight, possibly due to impaired retrospective memory. Executive function did not contribute to this impairment, and no gender differences in episodic anticipation after moderate alcohol consumption were noted in this research study.

This study explored the importance of episodic forecasting for effective decision-making and the potential effects of alcohol-induced impairment on inappropriate behaviors, while providing preliminary insights into secondary cognitive mechanisms that may contribute to its deficiency. These findings highlight how even moderate drinking can lead to suboptimal decision-making, increased risky behaviors, functional difficulties as well as various unintended outcomes that are well documented elsewhere.

The study, “Episodic forecasting is impaired following acute alcohol intoxication,” was authored by Morgan Elliott, Gill Terrett, Valerie Curran, Peter G. Rendell, and Julie D Henry.

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