Ill-defined problem solving in amnestic mild cognitive impairment: linking episodic memory to effective solution generation

S Sheldon, S Vandermorris, M Al-Haj, S Cohen, G Winocur, M Moscovitch
Neuropsychologia 2015, 68: 168-75
It is well accepted that the medial temporal lobes (MTL), and the hippocampus specifically, support episodic memory processes. Emerging evidence suggests that these processes also support the ability to effectively solve ill-defined problems which are those that do not have a set routine or solution. To test the relation between episodic memory and problem solving, we examined the ability of individuals with single domain amnestic mild cognitive impairment (aMCI), a condition characterized by episodic memory impairment, to solve ill-defined social problems. Participants with aMCI and age and education matched controls were given a battery of tests that included standardized neuropsychological measures, the Autobiographical Interview (Levine et al., 2002) that scored for episodic content in descriptions of past personal events, and a measure of ill-defined social problem solving. Corroborating previous findings, the aMCI group generated less episodically rich narratives when describing past events. Individuals with aMCI also generated less effective solutions when solving ill-defined problems compared to the control participants. Correlation analyses demonstrated that the ability to recall episodic elements from autobiographical memories was positively related to the ability to effectively solve ill-defined problems. The ability to solve these ill-defined problems was related to measures of activities of daily living. In conjunction with previous reports, the results of the present study point to a new functional role of episodic memory in ill-defined goal-directed behavior and other non-memory tasks that require flexible thinking. Our findings also have implications for the cognitive and behavioural profile of aMCI by suggesting that the ability to effectively solve ill-defined problems is related to sustained functional independence.

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