, Volume 234, Issue 11, pp 1749–1759 | Cite as

Alcohol-induced performance impairment: a 5-year re-examination study in heavy and light drinkers

  • Ty BrumbackEmail author
  • Dingcai Cao
  • Patrick McNamara
  • Andrea King
Original Investigation



The theory of behavioral tolerance to alcohol posits that greater experience with drinking to intoxication leads to less impaired cognitive and psychomotor performance. However, the degree to which behavioral tolerance develops or changes over time in adults due to repeated heavy alcohol drinking has not been clearly demonstrated.


We examined data from the first 6 years of the Chicago Social Drinking Project to test whether chronic heavy drinkers (HDs; n = 86) and light drinkers (LDs; n = 69) exhibit behavioral tolerance or changes in perceived impairment at two testing phases in early adulthood. Tasks were the Grooved Pegboard and Digit Symbol Substitution Test (DSST) given at initial testing and then repeated in a re-examination phase 5 years later. Alcohol (0.8 g/kg) and placebo were administered at separate sessions in each phase for a total of 620 individual laboratory sessions.


HDs exhibited less impairment over time on the Pegboard task but not on the DSST, while LDs did not exhibit behavioral tolerance on either task. HDs reported persistently lower perceived impairment compared to LDs.


These findings demonstrate that behavioral tolerance in HDs is evident over time on rote fine motor skills (Pegboard) but not more complex skills integrating motor speed, encoding, and short-term memory (DSST). The results have implications for our understanding of alcohol-induced impairments across neurobehavioral processes in heavy drinkers and their ongoing risks for alcohol-related consequences over time.


Alcohol Tolerance Human Motor learning Working memory 


Compliance with ethical standards

Funding support

R01 AA013746 (PI: King) and National Center for Research Resources and National Institutes of Health Roadmap for Medical Research (no. UL1 RR02499). Also, this study was supported by the Veteran’s Affairs Office of Academic Affiliation (TB).


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Copyright information

© Springer-Verlag Berlin Heidelberg (outside the USA) 2017

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.VA San Diego Healthcare SystemSan DiegoUSA
  2. 2.Department of PsychiatryUniversity of California San DiegoLa JollaUSA
  3. 3.Department of Ophthalmology and Visual SciencesUniversity of Illinois at ChicagoChicagoUSA
  4. 4.Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral NeuroscienceUniversity of ChicagoChicagoUSA

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