Verbal fluency and executive dysfunction in amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS)

Neuropsychologia. 2000;38(6):734-47. doi: 10.1016/s0028-3932(99)00146-3.


Neuropsychological investigations of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) patients have revealed variable results on specific tests, despite a similar overall cognitive profile of predominantly executive dysfunction with some evidence of memory impairment. The most striking and consistent deficit is found using tests of verbal fluency. The current investigation explored why verbal fluency is particularly sensitive to the impairment in ALS, by investigating some of the underlying cognitive processes: (i) intrinsic response generation; (ii) phonological loop functions; and (iii) simple word retrieval. Twenty-two ALS patients and 25 healthy controls were investigated. The battery included: (i) written and spoken letter-based fluency, category fluency, design fluency; (ii) the Phonological Similarities effect and Word Length Effect; and (iii) computerised sentence completion and confrontational naming. The tests were designed to control for motor speed and to accommodate for the range of disabilities that are present in ALS patients. Significant impairments were found on some tests of intrinsic response generation, namely the Written Verbal Fluency Test, Category Fluency Test (generation of animal names) and Design Fluency Test. Phonological loop functions appeared to be intact with evidence of both the Phonological Similarities and Word Length Effects, but the ALS patients displayed significantly reduced working memory capacity. No deficits were found on tests of simple word retrieval. The findings indicate that verbal fluency impairments in ALS patients result from a higher order dysfunction, implicating deficits in the supervisory attentional system or central executive component of working memory, and are not caused or exaggerated by an impairment in phonological loop functions or in primary linguistic abilities. The study also demonstrates the importance of controlling for differences in motor speed, which may have served to exaggerate the presence of cognitive deficits in ALS patients reported by some other studies.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis / complications*
  • Cognition Disorders / diagnosis
  • Cognition Disorders / etiology*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Linguistics
  • Male
  • Memory Disorders / diagnosis
  • Memory Disorders / etiology*
  • Middle Aged
  • Neuropsychological Tests
  • Severity of Illness Index
  • Verbal Behavior / physiology*