Dynamics of the cognitive procedural learning in alcoholics with Korsakoff's syndrome

Hélène Beaunieux, Anne L Pitel, Thomas Witkowski, François Vabret, Fausto Viader, Francis Eustache
Alcoholism, Clinical and Experimental Research 2013, 37 (6): 1025-32

BACKGROUND: While procedures acquired before the development of amnesia are likely to be preserved in alcoholic patients with Korsakoff's syndrome, the ability of Korsakoff patients (KS) to learn new cognitive procedures is called in question. According to the Adaptive Control of Thoughts model, learning a new cognitive procedure requires highly controlled processes in the initial cognitive phase, which may be difficult for KS with episodic and working memory deficits. The goals of the present study were to examine the learning dynamics of KS compared with uncomplicated alcoholic patients (AL) and control subjects (CS) and to determine the contribution of episodic and working memory abilities in cognitive procedural learning performance.

METHODS: Fourteen KS, 15 AL, and 15 CS were submitted to 40 trials (4 daily learning sessions) of the Tower of Toronto task (disk-transfer task similar to the tower of Hanoi task) as well as episodic and working memory tasks.

RESULTS: The 10 KS who were able to perform the cognitive procedural learning task obtained lower results than both CS and AL. The cognitive phase was longer in the Korsakoff's syndrome group than in the other 2 groups but did not differ between the 3 groups any more when episodic memory abilities were controlled.

CONCLUSIONS: Our results indicate that KS have impaired cognitive procedural learning abilities compared with both AL and CS. Episodic memory deficits observed in KS result in a delayed transition from the cognitive learning phase to more advanced learning phases and, as a consequence, in an absence of automation of the procedure within 40 trials.

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