Associative learning is required for face–name association and is impaired in alcoholism, but the cognitive processes and brain structural components underlying this deficit remain unclear. It is also unknown whether prompting alcoholics to implement a deep level of processing during face–name encoding would enhance performance.
Abstinent alcoholics and controls performed a levels-of-processing face–name learning task. Participants indicated whether the face was that of an honest person (deep encoding) or that of a man (shallow encoding). Retrieval was examined using an associative (face–name) recognition task and a single-item (face or name only) recognition task. Participants also underwent 3T structural MRI.
Compared with controls, alcoholics had poorer associative and single-item learning and performed at similar levels. Level of processing at encoding had little effect on recognition performance but affected reaction time (RT). Correlations with brain volumes were generally modest and based primarily on RT in alcoholics, where the deeper the processing at encoding, the more restricted the correlations with brain volumes. In alcoholics, longer control task RTs correlated modestly with smaller tissue volumes across several anterior to posterior brain regions; shallow encoding correlated with calcarine and striatal volumes; deep encoding correlated with precuneus and parietal volumes; and associative recognition RT correlated with cerebellar volumes. In controls, poorer associative recognition with deep encoding correlated significantly with smaller volumes of frontal and striatal structures.
Despite prompting, alcoholics did not take advantage of encoding memoranda at a deep level to enhance face–name recognition accuracy. Nonetheless, conditions of deeper encoding resulted in faster RTs and more specific relations with regional brain volumes than did shallow encoding. The normal relation between associative recognition and corticostriatal volumes was not present in alcoholics. Rather, their speeded RTs occurred at the expense of accuracy and were related most robustly to cerebellar volumes.
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