Psychological Medicine

Original Article

Missing the forest for the trees? Deficient memory for linguistic gist in obsessive–compulsive disorder

A. R.  CABRERA  a1, R. J.  McNALLY  c1 a1 and C. R.  SAVAGE  a1
a1 From the Department of Psychology, Harvard University and Massachusetts General Hospital, Cambridge, MA, USA


Background. Patients with obsessive–compulsive disorder (OCD) exhibit recall deficits on word learning tasks, mediated by their failure to detect semantic connections among the words.

Methods. In the present experiment, using methods devised by Bransford & Franks (1971), we tested whether this encoding problem impairs their extraction of gist from complex linguistic material.

Results. Consistent with our hypothesis, OCD patients extracted less gist from related sentences than did healthy participants. The groups did not differ in recognition memory for individual sentences or in criterion for affirming previously encountered sentences as ‘old’, as evinced by signal detection indices of memory sensitivity (d′) and response bias (β), or in recognition memory confidence.

Conclusions. These data provide further evidence that OCD patients exhibit less reliance on organizational strategies than do healthy control participants. These data are consistent with neuropsychological research suggestive of prefrontal executive problems in OCD.

c1 Address for correspondence: Dr R. J. McNally, Harvard University, Department of Psychology, William James Hall, 33 Kirkland Street, Cambridge, MA 02138, USA.