U.S. and British researchers say that drinking and withdrawal from chronic drinking can increase the stress hormone cortisol, raising the risk of memory loss. This was revealed in the online edition of the journal Alcoholism: Clinical & Experimental Research. The review says that stress and cortisol are very important determinants of the natural history of alcoholism. These affect an individual's drinking behavior, the effects on cognition and memory and the likelihood of relapsing into alcoholism during abstinence.

Prolonged and elevated levels of glucocorticoid hormones can damage or destroy neurons, and lead to an increased vulnerability to other situations that can damage neurons, such as raised excitatory amino acid activity, A.K. Rose of the University of Liverpool said in a statement. This can underlie loss of memory functions.

The study also finds increased brain concentrations of corticosterone for long periods after alcohol withdrawal, even after the blood concentrations return to normal levels. Increased glucocorticoid levels in the brain after alcohol treatment are associated with cognitive deficits seen during abstinence, affecting both treatment efficacy and quality of life.