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Impaired cognitive plasticity and goal-directed control in adolescent obsessive–compulsive disorder

  • Julia Gottwald (a1) (a2), Sanne de Wit (a3), Annemieke M. Apergis-Schoute (a1) (a2) (a4), Sharon Morein-Zamir (a2) (a4) (a5), Muzaffer Kaser (a1) (a2) (a6), Francesca Cormack (a7), Akeem Sule (a1), Winifred Limmer (a1), Anna Conway Morris (a6), Trevor W. Robbins (a2) (a4) and Barbara J. Sahakian (a1) (a2)...

Youths with obsessive–compulsive disorder (OCD) experience severe distress and impaired functioning at school and at home. Critical cognitive domains for daily functioning and academic success are learning, memory, cognitive flexibility and goal-directed behavioural control. Performance in these important domains among teenagers with OCD was therefore investigated in this study.


A total of 36 youths with OCD and 36 healthy comparison subjects completed two memory tasks: Pattern Recognition Memory (PRM) and Paired Associates Learning (PAL); as well as the Intra-Extra Dimensional Set Shift (IED) task to quantitatively gauge learning as well as cognitive flexibility. A subset of 30 participants of each group also completed a Differential-Outcome Effect (DOE) task followed by a Slips-of-Action Task, designed to assess the balance of goal-directed and habitual behavioural control.


Adolescent OCD patients showed a significant learning and memory impairment. Compared with healthy comparison subjects, they made more errors on PRM and PAL and in the first stages of IED involving discrimination and reversal learning. Patients were also slower to learn about contingencies in the DOE task and were less sensitive to outcome devaluation, suggesting an impairment in goal-directed control.


This study advances the characterization of juvenile OCD. Patients demonstrated impairments in all learning and memory tasks. We also provide the first experimental evidence of impaired goal-directed control and lack of cognitive plasticity early in the development of OCD. The extent to which the impairments in these cognitive domains impact academic performance and symptom development warrants further investigation.

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This is an Open Access article, distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution licence (, which permits unrestricted re-use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original work is properly cited.
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Author for correspondence: Julia Gottwald, E-mail:
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