Implicit memory is independent from IQ and age but not from etiology: Evidence from Down and Williams syndromes

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Background: In the last few years, experimental data have been reported on differences in implicit memory processes of genetically distinct groups of individuals with Intellectual Disability (ID). These evidences are relevant for the more general debate on supposed asynchrony of cognitive maturation in children with abnormal brain development. This study, comparing implicit memory processes in individuals with Williams syndrome (WS) and Down syndrome (DS), was planned to verify the 'etiological specificity' hypotheses pertaining to the skill learning abilities of individuals with ID. Method: A modified version of Nissen and Bullemer's (1987) Serial Reaction Time (SRT) task was used. The performances of three group were evaluated. The first group consisted of thirty-two people with WS (18 males and 14 females). The second group was comprised of twenty-six individuals with DS (14 males and 12 females). The two groups of individuals with ID were selected so that the groups were comparable as for mental age and chronological age. The third group consisted of forty-nine typically developed children with a mental age similar to that of the groups with WS and DS. Results: The two groups of individuals with ID demonstrated different patterns of procedural learning. WS individuals revealed poor implicit learning of the temporal sequence of events characterizing the ordered blocks in the SRT task. Indeed, differently from normal controls, WS participants showed no reaction time (RT) speeding through ordered blocks. Most importantly, the rebound effect, which so dramatically affected normal children's RTs passing from the last ordered to the last block, had only a marginal influence on WS children's RTs. Differently from the WS group, the rate of procedural learning of the participants with DS was comparable to that of their controls. Indeed, DS and typically developed individuals showed parallel RT variations in the series of ordered blocks and, more importantly, passing from the last ordered to the last block. Therefore, a substantial preservation of skill learning abilities in this genetic syndrome is confirmed. Conclusions: The results of the present study document that procedural learning in individuals with ID depends on the aetiology of the syndrome, thus supporting the etiological specificity account of their cognitive development. These results are relevant for our knowledge about the qualitative aspects and the underlying neurobiological substrate of the anomalous cognitive development in mentally retarded people.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)932-941
Number of pages10
JournalJournal of Intellectual Disability Research
Issue number12
Publication statusPublished - Dec 2007


  • Brain development
  • Genetic syndrome
  • Implicit memory
  • Intellectual disability
  • Learning

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Genetics
  • Genetics(clinical)
  • Clinical Neurology
  • Psychiatry and Mental health
  • Rehabilitation
  • Neurology
  • Education
  • Health Professions(all)


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