The Effects of Alcohol Hangover on Executive Functions
Recent research has suggested that processes reliant on executive functions are impaired by an alcohol hangover, yet few studies have investigated the effect of hangovers on core executive function processes. Therefore, the current study investigated the effect of hangovers on the three core components of the unity/diversity model of executive functions: the ability to switch attention, update information in working memory, and maintain goals.
Thirty-five 18-to-30-year-old non-smoking individuals who reported experiencing a hangover at least once in the previous month participated in this study. They completed tasks measuring switching (number-switching task), updating (n-back task), and goal maintenance (AX Continuous Performance Test, AX-CPT) whilst experiencing a hangover and without a hangover in a ‘naturalistic’ within-subjects crossover design.
Participants made more errors in the switching task (p = 0.019), more errors in both the 1- (p < 0.001) and 2-back (p < 0.001) versions of the n-back, and more errors in the AX-CPT (p = 0.007) tasks when experiencing a hangover, compared to the no-hangover condition.
These results suggest that an alcohol hangover impairs core executive function processes that are important for everyday behaviours, such as decision-making, planning, and mental flexibility.
Research in Context
The findings show how, when hungover, individuals have a reduced ability to retain information in their short-term memory – for example retaining a telephone number whilst taking a message at the same time. They also highlight impairments when it comes to individuals’ ability to switch attention between tasks and focus on a goal.
A previous study done by the same team recently found that hangovers cost the UK economy £1.4 billion a year in wasted productivity, including people working while hungover.
We know that hangovers can have a big economic cost, but we did not know how hangover affects our ability to switch attention from one task to another, update information in our mind, and maintain focus on set goals. The results suggest that all of these processes are impaired by a hangover, which could have consequences for other aspects of our lives,” said Lead author Craig Gunn of Bath’s Department of Psychology, as per, Eureka Alert.
The authors suggest these findings could also have important implications during the current lockdown situation. Earlier this month, Alcohol Change UK estimated that 8.6 million adults in the UK were consuming alcohol more frequently. Those engaged in heavy alcohol use at home at home are at increased risk of experiencing a hangover the next day, which may impact their ability and productivity when working at home.