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Visuospatial learning and executive function are independently impaired in first-episode psychosis

  • JENNIFER H. BARNETT (a1), BARBARA J. SAHAKIAN (a1), URSULA WERNERS (a1), KATHERINE E. HILL (a1), ROSSA BRAZIL (a1), OLWYN GALLAGHER (a1), EDWARD T. BULLMORE (a1) and PETER B. JONES (a1)...

Abstract

Background. Demonstrating specific cognitive impairments in psychotic disorders is difficult. However, specific deficits in memory and executive functions have often been claimed. The Cambridge Neuropsychological Test Automated Battery (CANTAB) tasks of IDED attention-shifting (an executive task) and visuospatial paired associates learning (PAL, a memory task) require intact frontal and temporo-hippocampal functioning, respectively; both have been suggested as markers of disease progress in psychosis.

Method. Seventy-one subjects with a first-episode psychosis or at-risk mental state were assessed on these two tasks during referral to a specialist service, the Cambridge-based CAMEO early intervention team.

Results. Performance on the two tasks was dissociated. Poor performance on the PAL test was associated with increased symptom levels and poorer global function, while failure on the IDED executive test was not found to have significant clinical associations. Duration of illness was not associated with performance on either task.

Conclusions. Visuospatial PAL failure may be a marker of clinical severity at the onset of psychosis while IDED performance may reflect a more stable, trait-like impairment. Dissociated performance on the executive and associative learning tasks may reflect independent, neurally dissociated impairments that do not arise in a fixed order. This may explain some of the heterogeneity of cognitive function seen in early psychosis.

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Corresponding author

University of Cambridge Department of Psychiatry, Box 189, Addenbrooke's Hospital, Cambridge, CB2 2QQ. (Email: jhb32@cam.ac.uk)

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