Alcohol-Induced Sleepiness and Memory Function

By Roehrs, Timothy; Roth, Thomas | Alcohol Health & Research World, January 1, 1995 | Go to article overview

Alcohol-Induced Sleepiness and Memory Function

Roehrs, Timothy, Roth, Thomas, Alcohol Health & Research World

Alcohol is known to impair various aspects of cognitive functioning, including learning and memory (Birnbaum and Parker 1977). Alcohol-induced memory impairment has been studied extensively both by researchers and clinicians, partly because memory impairment has everyday practical consequences for the affected patient. In addition, precise methods exist to assess memory functions. However, despite the large number of studies on alcohol-induced memory impairment, there is little consensus about the specific components of memory affected by alcohol or about the neurobiological mechanisms underlying alcohol's effects.

A useful method of conceptualizing the way alcohol may affect memory is offered by Curran (1991). This concept entails that mood, level of sleepiness/alertness (or, as Curran describes it, arousal), and memory all are interrelated. Alcohol is known to affect directly each of these factors. And by acting on one factor, alcohol also can indirectly affect the other factors because of their interrelations.

This article reviews a wide range of research findings contributing to the hypothesis that alcohol's direct sedative effects (i.e., alcohol-induced sleepiness)--in addition to its direct memory effects--contributes to alcohol's amnestic (i.e., memory impairing) effects. Studies on both healthy, sleep-deprived people and on patients with sleep disorders and studies of the effects of sedative drugs provide the basis for this hypothesis. Studies separately assessing alcohol's sedative and amnestic effects or simultaneously measuring alcohol's sedative and performance-disruptive effects provide further support. The article also describes some of the neurotransmitter systems controlling sleep and wakefulness that are affected by alcohol and other sedative drugs and that may underlie the association of sedation and memory impairment. Finally, some important practical implications of the potential correlation between alcohol's sedative and memory-impairing effects are discussed.


Like hunger and thirst, sleepiness is considered a basic physiological drive state. It reflects the organism's need or pressure for sleep. Like other physiological drive states, the level of sleepiness is difficult to assess. Despite a general tendency toward increasing sleepiness after sleep loss, most a sleep deprivation studies find some inconsistencies in the subjects' personal assessment of how sleepy they are (Monk 1991; Roth et al. 1994).

Research has shown that people's ability to accurately judge their degree of sleepiness depends on several factors, such as internal point of reference, environmental demands, and time of day (Roth et al. 1994). For example, a person not getting enough sleep for an extended period will lose the internal reference to the experience of full alertness and therefore may underestimate his or her level of sleepiness. Similarly, people often judge their level of sleepiness to be higher in boring, nonstimulating situations in which environmental demands to stay alert or to pay attention are reduced. Finally, most people experience a circadian fluctuation with increased sleepiness over the midday and increased alertness in the early evening.

To assess sleepiness or alertness or the sedative effects of drugs, such as alcohol, scientists have asked people to self-rate their sleepiness or have used standard laboratory tests of performance. However, for the reasons stated above, self-ratings of sleepiness or sedative drug effects may be inaccurate (Roth et al. 1982). Similarly, performance tests sometimes are insensitive to the effects of small doses of sedative drugs or low breath alcohol concentrations.

A method to assess sleepiness objectively has been developed, however. This method conceptually is based on an observation originating in the 19th century that as sleep loss progresses over time, people increasingly experience uncontrollable brief naps or microsleeps (Patrick and Gilbert 1896). …

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Sign up now for a free, 1-day trial and receive full access to:

  • Questia's entire collection
  • Automatic bibliography creation
  • More helpful research tools like notes, citations, and highlights
  • A full archive of books and articles related to this one
  • Ad-free environment

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
One moment ...
Default project is now your active project.
Project items

Items saved from this article

This article has been saved
Highlights (0)
Some of your highlights are legacy items.

Highlights saved before July 30, 2012 will not be displayed on their respective source pages.

You can easily re-create the highlights by opening the book page or article, selecting the text, and clicking “Highlight.”

Citations (0)
Some of your citations are legacy items.

Any citation created before July 30, 2012 will labeled as a “Cited page.” New citations will be saved as cited passages, pages or articles.

We also added the ability to view new citations from your projects or the book or article where you created them.

Notes (0)
Bookmarks (0)

You have no saved items from this article

Project items include:
  • Saved book/article
  • Highlights
  • Quotes/citations
  • Notes
  • Bookmarks
Cite this article

Cited article

Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

(Einhorn, 1992, p. 25)

(Einhorn 25)


1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25,

Cited article

Alcohol-Induced Sleepiness and Memory Function


Text size Smaller Larger Reset View mode
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

Full screen

matching results for page

    Questia reader help

    How to highlight and cite specific passages

    1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
    2. Click or tap the last word you want to select, and you’ll see everything in between get selected.
    3. You’ll then get a menu of options like creating a highlight or a citation from that passage of text.

    OK, got it!

    Cited passage

    Citations are available only to our active members.
    Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn, 1992, p. 25).

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn 25)

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences."1

    1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25,

    Cited passage

    Thanks for trying Questia!

    Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

    Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

    For full access in an ad-free environment, sign up now for a FREE, 1-day trial.

    Already a member? Log in now.