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Brain. 1997 Oct;120 ( Pt 10):1805-22.

A study of the performance of patients with frontal lobe lesions in a financial planning task.

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  • 1Department of Psychology, York University, North York, Ontario, Canada.


It has long been argued that patients with lesions in the prefrontal cortex have difficulties in decision making and problem solving in real-world, ill-structured situations, particularly problem types involving planning and look-ahead components. Recently, several researchers have questioned our ability to capture and characterize these deficits adequately using just the standard neuropsychological test batteries, and have called for tests that reflect real-world task requirements more accurately. We present data from 10 patients with focal lesions to the prefrontal cortex and 10 normal control subjects engaged in a real-world financial planning task. We also introduce a theoretical framework and methodology developed in the cognitive science literature for quantifying and analysing the complex data generated by problem-solving tasks. Our findings indicate that patient performance is impoverished at a global level but not at the local level. Patients have difficulty in organizing and structuring their problem space. Once they begin problem solving, they have difficulty in allocating adequate effort to each problem-solving phase. Patients also have difficulty dealing with the fact that there are no right or wrong answers nor official termination points in real-world planning problems. They also find it problematic to generate their own feedback. They invariably terminate the session before the details are fleshed out and all the goals satisfied. Finally, patients do not take full advantage of the fact that constraints on real-world problems are negotiable. However, it is not necessary to postulate a 'planning' deficit. It is possible to understand the patients' difficulties in real world planning tasks in terms of the following four accepted deficits: inadequate access to 'structured event complexes', difficulty in generalizing from particulars, failure to shift between 'mental sets', and poor judgment regarding adequacy and completeness of a plan.

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