Introduction: Rule induction tests such as the Wisconsin Card Sorting Test require executive control processes, but also the learning and memorization of simple stimulus–response rules. In this study, we examined the contribution of diminished learning and memorization of simple rules to complex rule induction test performance in patients with amnestic mild cognitive impairment (aMCI) or Alzheimer’s dementia (AD). Method: Twenty-six aMCI patients, 39 AD patients, and 32 control participants were included. A task was used in which the memory load and the complexity of the rules were independently manipulated. This task consisted of three conditions: a simple two-rule learning condition (Condition 1), a simple four-rule learning condition (inducing an increase in memory load, Condition 2), and a complex biconditional four-rule learning condition—inducing an increase in complexity and, hence, executive control load (Condition 3). Results: Performance of AD patients declined disproportionately when the number of simple rules that had to be memorized increased (from Condition 1 to 2). An additional increment in complexity (from Condition 2 to 3) did not, however, disproportionately affect performance of the patients. Performance of the aMCI patients did not differ from that of the control participants. In the patient group, correlation analysis showed that memory performance correlated with Condition 1 performance, whereas executive task performance correlated with Condition 2 performance. Conclusions: These results indicate that the reduced learning and memorization of underlying task rules explains a significant part of the diminished complex rule induction performance commonly reported in AD, although results from the correlation analysis suggest involvement of executive control functions as well. Taken together, these findings suggest that care is needed when interpreting rule induction task performance in terms of executive function deficits in these patients.

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Keywords Dementia, Executive function, Mild cognitive impairment, Rule induction, Stimulus-response learning
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Journal Neuropsychology, Development and Cognition. Section A: Journal of Clinical and Experimental Neuropsychology
Oosterman, J.M, Heringa, S.M, Kessels, R.P.C, Biessels, G.J, Koek, H.L, Maes, J.H.R, & van den Berg, E. (2016). Rule induction performance in amnestic mild cognitive impairment and Alzheimer’s dementia: examining the role of simple and biconditional rule learning processes. Neuropsychology, Development and Cognition. Section A: Journal of Clinical and Experimental Neuropsychology, 1–11. doi:10.1080/13803395.2016.1218444