Dysexecutive Syndrome

working memory

Dysexecutive [dis-ig-zek-yuh-tivsyndrome (DES) consists of a group of symptoms, usually resulting from brain damage, that fall into cognitive, behavioral and emotional categories and tend to occur together. The term was introduced by British psychologist Alan Baddeley to describe a common pattern of dysfunction in executive functions, such as planning, abstract thinking, flexibility and behavioral control.

It is thought to be Baddeley’s theory of working memory and the central executive that are the hypothetical systems impaired in DES. The syndrome was once known as frontal lobe syndrome, however dysexecutive syndrome is preferred because it emphasizes the functional pattern of deficits (the symptoms) over the location of the syndrome in the frontal lobe, which is often not the only area affected.

Symptoms of DES fall into three broad categories: cognitive, emotional and behavioral. Many of the symptoms can be seen as a direct result of impairment to the central executive component of working memory, which is responsible for attentional control and inhibition. Although many of the symptoms regularly co-occur, it is common to encounter patients who have several, but not all symptoms. The accumulated effects of the symptoms have a large impact on daily life.

Cognitive symptoms refer to a person’s ability to process thoughts. Cognition primarily refers to memory, the ability to learn new information, speech, and reading comprehension. Deficits within this area cause many problems with every day life decisions.

One of the main difficulties for an individual with DES is planning and reasoning. Impaired planning and reasoning affects the individual’s ability to realistically assess and manage the problems of every day living. New problems and situations may be especially poorly handled because of the inability to transfer previous knowledge to the new event. An individual that has DES may have a short attention span due to impairment in attentional control. This may alter the individual’s ability to focus, and as such have difficulty with reading and following a storyline or conversation. For instance, they can easily lose track of conversations which can make it difficult to hold a meaningful conversation and may result in avoiding social interactions.

Individuals with DES will have very poor working memory and short term memory due to executive dysfunction. The dysfunction can range from mild and subtle to severe and obvious. There is a tremendous variability in the manifestations of executive dysfunction with strong influences often apparent from the afflicted person’s personality, life experiences and intellect. Individuals with DES may suffer from confabulation, which is the spontaneous report of events that never happened. This can affect their autobiographical memory. It is thought that patients may not be able to assess the accuracy of memory retrieval and therefore elaborate on implausible memories.

Individuals with dementia, delirium or other severe psychiatric illnesses combined with DES often have disturbed sleep patterns. Some will not recognize that it is night-time and may become upset when someone would try and correct them.

The emotional symptoms that individuals with DES experience may be quite extreme and can cause extensive problems. They may have difficulty inhibiting many types of emotions such as anger, excitement, sadness, or frustration. Due to multiple impairments of cognitive functioning, there can be much more frustration when expressing certain feelings and understanding how to interpret every day situations. Individuals with DES may have higher levels of aggression or anger because they lack abilities that are related to behavioral control. They can also have difficulty understanding others’ points of view, which can lead to anger and frustration.

Behavioral symptoms are evident through an individuals actions. People with DES often lose their social skills because their judgments and insights into what others may be thinking are impaired. They may have trouble knowing how to behave in group situations and may not know how to follow social norms. The central executive helps control impulses; therefore when impaired, patients have poor impulse control. This can lead to higher levels of aggression and anger. DES can also cause patients to appear self-centered and stubborn.

Utilization behavior is when a patient automatically uses an object in the appropriate manner, but at an inappropriate time. For example, if a pen and paper are placed in front of an individual with DES they will start to write or if there is a deck of cards they will deal them out. Patients showing this symptom will begin the behavior in the middle of conversations or during auditory tests. Utilization behavior is thought to occur because an action is initiated when an object is seen, but patients with DES lack the central executive control to inhibit acting it out at inappropriate times.

Perseveration is also often seen in patients with DES. Perseveration is the repetition of thoughts, behaviors, or actions after they have already been completed. For instance, continually blowing out a match, after it is no longer lit is an example of perseveration behavior. There are three types of perseveration: continuous perseveration, stuck-in-set perseveration, and recurrent perseveration. Stuck-in-set perseveration is most often seen in dysexecutive syndrome. This type of perseveration refers to when a patient cannot get out of a specific frame of mind, such as when asked to name animals they can only name one. If you ask them to then name colors, they may still give you animals. Perseveration may explain why some patients appear to have obsessive compulsive disorder.

There is no cure for individuals with DES, but there are therapies to help them cope with their symptoms. DES can affect a number of functions in the brain and vary from person to person. Because of this variance, it is suggested that the most successful therapy would include multiple methods. Researchers suggest that a number of factors in the executive functioning need to be improved, including self-awareness, goal setting, planning, self-initiation, self-monitoring, self-inhibition, flexibility, and strategic behavior.

One method for individuals to improve in these areas is to help them plan and carry out actions and intentions through a series of goals and sub-goals. To accomplish this, therapists teach patients a three-step model called the General Planning Approach. The first step is Information and Awareness, in which the patients are taught about their own problems and shown how this affects their lives. The patients are then taught to monitor their executive functions and begin to evaluate them. The second stage, Goal Setting and Planning, consists of patients making specific goals, as well as devising a plan to accomplish them. For example, patients may decide they will have lunch with a friend (their goal). They are taught to write down which friend it may be, where they are going for lunch, what time they are going, how they will get there, etc. (sub-goals). They are also taught to make sure the steps go in the correct order. The final stage, named Initiation, Execution, and Regulation, requires patients to implement their goals in their everyday lives.

Some researchers have suggested that DES is mislabelled as a syndrome because it is possible for the symptoms to exist on their own. Also, there is not a distinct pattern of damage that leads to the syndrome. Not all patients with frontal lobe damage have DES and some patients with no damage at all to the frontal lobe exhibit the necessary pattern of symptoms. This has lead researches to investigate the possibility that executive functioning is broken down into multiple processes that are spread throughout the frontal lobe. Further disagreement comes from the syndrome being based on Baddeley and Hitch’s model of working memory and the central executive, which is a hypothetical construct.

The vagueness of some aspects of the syndrome has led researchers to test for it in a non-clinical sample. The results show that some dysexecutive behaviours are part of everyday life, and the symptoms exist to varying degrees in everyone. For example, absentmindedness and lapses in attention are common everyday occurrences for most people. However, for the majority of the population such inattentiveness is manageable, whereas patients with DES experience it to such a degree that daily tasks become difficult.


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