BACKGROUND: The exact nature of episodic and working memory impairments in alcoholic Korsakoff patients (KS) remains unclear, as does the specificity of these neuropsychological deficits compared with those of non-Korsakoff alcoholics (AL). The goals of the present study were therefore to (1) specify the nature of episodic and working memory impairments in KS, (2) determine the specificity of the KS neuropsychological profile compared with the AL profile, and (3) observe the distribution of individual performances within the 2 patient groups. METHODS: We investigated episodic memory (encoding and retrieval abilities, contextual memory and state of consciousness associated with memories), the slave systems of working memory (phonological loop, visuospatial sketchpad and episodic buffer) and executive functions (inhibition, flexibility, updating and integration abilities) in 14 strictly selected KS, 40 AL and 55 control subjects (CS). RESULTS: Compared with CS, KS displayed impairments of episodic memory encoding and retrieval, contextual memory, recollection, the slave systems of working memory and executive functions. Although episodic memory was more severely impaired in KS than in AL, the single specificity of the KS profile was a disproportionately large encoding deficit. Apart from organizational and updating abilities, the slave systems of working memory and inhibition, flexibility and integration abilities were impaired to the same extent in both alcoholic groups. However, some KS were unable to complete the most difficult executive tasks. There was only a partial overlap of individual performances by KS and AL for episodic memory and a total mixture of the 2 groups for working memory. CONCLUSIONS: Korsakoff's syndrome encompasses impairments of the different episodic and working memory components. AL and KS displayed similar profiles of episodic and working memory deficits, in accordance with neuroimaging investigations showing similar patterns of brain damage in both alcoholic groups.
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