Attentional set-shifting in fragile X syndrome

M. J. W. Van der Molen*, M. W. Van der Molen, K. R. Ridderinkhof, B. C. J. Hamel, L. M. G. Curfs, G. J. A. Ramakers

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleAcademicpeer-review


The ability to flexibly adapt to the changing demands of the environment is often reported as a core deficit in fragile X syndrome (FXS). However, the cognitive processes that determine this attentional set-shifting deficit remain elusive. The present study investigated attentional set-shifting ability in fragile X syndrome males with the well-validated intra/extra dimensional set-shifting paradigm (IED) which offers detailed assessment of rule learning, reversal learning, and attentional set-shifting ability within and between stimulus dimensions. A novel scoring method for IED stage errors was employed to interpret set-shifting failure in terms of repetitive decision-making, distraction to irrelevance, and set-maintenance failure. Performance of FXS males was compared to typically developing children matched on mental age, adults matched on chronological age, and individuals with Down syndrome matched on both mental and chronological age. Results revealed that a significant proportion of FXS males already failed prior to the intra-dimensional set-shift stage, whereas all control participants successfully completed the stages up to the crucial extra-dimensional set-shift. FXS males showed a specific weakness in reversal learning, which was characterized by repetitive decision-making during the reversal of newly acquired stimulus-response associations in the face of simple stimulus configurations. In contrast, when stimulus configurations became more complex, FXS males displayed increased distraction to irrelevant stimuli. These findings are interpreted in terms of the cognitive demands imposed by the stages of the IED in relation to the alleged neural deficits in FXS.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)206-217
JournalBrain and Cognition
Issue number3
Publication statusPublished - Apr 2012


  • Fragile X syndrome
  • Attentional set-shifting
  • Reversal learning
  • IED


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