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Problematic alcohol use and reduced hippocampal volume: a meta-analytic review

  • S. Wilson (a1), J. L. Bair (a1), K. M. Thomas (a2) and W. G. Iacono (a1)

A number of studies reports reduced hippocampal volume in individuals who engage in problematic alcohol use. However, the magnitude of the difference in hippocampal volume between individuals with v. without problematic alcohol use has varied widely, and there have been null findings. Moreover, the studies comprise diverse alcohol use constructs and samples, including clinically significant alcohol use disorders and subclinical but problematic alcohol use (e.g. binge drinking), adults and adolescents, and males and females.


We conducted the first quantitative synthesis of the published empirical research on associations between problematic alcohol use and hippocampal volume. In total, 23 studies were identified and selected for inclusion in the meta-analysis; effects sizes were aggregated using a random-effects model.


Problematic alcohol use was associated with significantly smaller hippocampal volume (d = −0.53). Moderator analyses indicated that effects were stronger for clinically significant v. subclinical alcohol use and among adults relative to adolescents; effects did not differ among males and females.


Problematic alcohol use is associated with reduced hippocampal volume. The moderate overall effect size suggests the need for larger samples than are typically included in studies of alcohol use and hippocampal volume. Because the existing literature is almost entirely cross-sectional, future research using causally informative study designs is needed to determine whether this association reflects premorbid risk for the development of problematic alcohol use and/or whether alcohol has a neurotoxic effect on the hippocampus.

Corresponding author
*Address for correspondence: S. Wilson, Department of Psychology, University of Minnesota, 75 E River Rd, Minneapolis, MN 55455, USA. (Email:
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