The aim of the study was to compare late and early onset alcoholism with regard to regional cerebral blood flow (rCBF) and neuropsychological functioning. Ten late onset and 13 early onset male alcoholics were included in the study, the criterion being the age of onset for alcohol abuse. Six healthy male volunteers were included as a control group. Regional measures of cortical cerebral blood flow were assessed using Tc-99m-HMPAO single photon emission computed tomography (SPECT) after a detoxification period. When compared with the control group, the early onset group showed reduced relative perfusion in the left superior frontal region, while relative perfusion in the late onset group was deficient in both right and left superior frontal regions. Both groups of alcoholic patients also displayed impairment in frontal lobe functions and non-verbal memory. The results of this study indicate that early onset alcoholism is associated with hypoperfusion in the left superior frontal region while the late onset subtype is characterized by uniformly hypoperfused left and right superior frontal regions. Additionally, both groups of alcoholic patients exhibit an almost identical pattern of neuropsychological abnormalities mainly related to frontal lobe functions and non-verbal memory. Collectively these findings support previous evidence suggesting a key role of frontal lobe pathology in understanding the neurobiology of alcoholism. (C) 2002 Elsevier Science Ireland Ltd. All rights reserved.