Speed and efficiency but not accuracy or timing deficits of limb movements in alcoholic men and women

Edith V. Sullivan, John E. Desmond, Kelvin O. Lim, Adolf Pfefferbaum

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

59 Scopus citations


Background: Lesions of the cerebellum, a concomitant of alcoholism, can disrupt quality and regularity of movement. Whether evidence for such dysfunction lingers in patients with uncomplicated alcoholism, which is known to affect cerebellar structural integrity, is controversial. Methods: We used quantitative measures to examine component processes of five classes of movement associated with regional cerebellar function: limb ataxia (alternated finger tapping and variants of the finger-to-nose and heel-to-shin tests), paced tapping, eye-hand coordinated tracing, timed response reflecting preparation and execution time, and postural stability. The subjects examined were 39 abstinent alcoholics (13 men and 26 women) and 21 age-matched controls (9 men and 12 women). For limb ataxia, the dependent measures were the trajectory deviation from the subject's own average movement path and the speed of travel from beginning points to endpoints. Results: Repeated-measures analysis of variance comparing movement speed of finger to nose and heel to shin yielded significant interactions in all conditions (p < 0.007); this indicated that the alcoholics were relatively slower in the upper- than lower-limb tasks. Movements by the alcoholic men were significantly slower but less deviant from an ideal trajectory in all upper-limb conditions than those of the control men (p < 0.002). Although measures of lower-limb movement trajectory did not distinguish the groups, tests of ataxia of stance and gait did. The groups did not differ, however, on tests of timed tapping or sinusoid tracing. Conclusions: Alcohol-related postural instability in abstinent alcoholics is functional evidence supporting the postulated damage to the anterior superior vermis. Altered speed or accuracy trade-offs, with alcoholics moving slower to attain equivalent or even smaller trajectory deviations, are symptomatic of cerebellar hemisphere dysfunction that is characterized by deliberation of otherwise automatic movements.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)705-713
Number of pages9
JournalAlcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research
Issue number5
StatePublished - 2002


  • Alcohol
  • Cerebellum
  • Motor Ability
  • Movement Disorder
  • Sex Differences


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