Attention, Learning and Memory in young people with fragile X syndrome: Does social context matter?

by Elise Ng-Cordell, Jackie Guy and Gaia Scerif


Overview:

This study investigated how young people with fragile X syndrome pay attention to, learn, and remember information from everyday scenes. In particular, we wanted to understand whether social context (i.e. people present in the scenes) affects how one looks at scenes, and in turn, how one learns and remembers information about them. This is because young people with fragile X often are anxious about being presented with unfamiliar people, but we do not know how this affects their attention and learning.

Our computer game set-up

What did we do?

We designed a treasure-hunt themed computer game, where players had to help “Adventure Adam” search for a number of objects (e.g. a clock, a saucepan) hidden within photographs of everyday scenes (e.g. a kitchen, a garden). In half of the photographs, there was always a person standing to the side. In the other half, there was a non-social object (e.g. a stack of tyres) there instead.


Young people were asked to find these objects three times over (during a “learning phase”). Then, after a short break, they were asked to put the objects back where they remembered them to be hidden previously (this was the “memory phase”).


Example of a scene with an object hidden within

We were interested in whether young people could find the hidden objects, how long it took to find them, and how well they remembered where the objects were hidden.


In addition, we used an eye-tracker to record where young people were looking while they played the game.







Who took part?

15 boys and girls with fragile X syndrome (aged 12 to 17) took part, along with 46 boys and girls without fragile X syndrome, who had similar levels of verbal or non-verbal skills.

What did we find out?

We found that the young people with fragile X syndrome were similar to the comparison group in several ways:

· All young people did well at the game: during the learning phase, young people with fragile X syndrome found a similar number of hidden objects, and took the same amount of time to find them as those without fragile X syndrome and with similar levels of verbal ability.

· They also became quicker at finding the hidden objects over time, suggesting they were learning where these objects were hidden.

· During the memory phase, all kids looked at the people in the photographs, possibly using these people to help them remember where the objects were hidden.

There were also some differences between young people with fragile X syndrome and those in the comparison group:

· During the memory phase, young people with fragile X syndrome did not remember as precisely where the objects were hidden.

· They looked less at the people in the photographs when they first started playing the game. However, over the course of the game, they started to look at the people more.

· Those who looked less at the people in the memory phase of the game tended to be more anxious, according to parent-report questionnaires.

Why did we do this project?

For boys and girls with fragile X syndrome, there is a lot of variability in social behaviours. For example, some children and young people may avoid looking at new or unfamiliar people. We wanted to investigate how differences like these might be related to everyday cognitive abilities – that is, patterns of attention and memory. We also wanted to explore whether these differences are related to other emotional characteristics such as anxiety. Understanding these relationships might contribute to a better understanding of social interactions for children and young people with fragile X syndrome.


In our study, we found that while young people with fragile X syndrome looked less at the people in our game to begin with, they started to pay more attention to the people over time. We also found that participants who looked less at the people in the game tended to be more anxious. This might be similar to what other researchers have described before: children and young people with fragile X syndrome, and especially those with more anxiety, are not socially disinterested, but might take longer to “warm up” to other people.


Just as importantly, we found similarities between young people with and without fragile X syndrome: although young people with fragile X syndrome weren’t as precise in the memory phase, we found that they learned and improved over time, which goes against the idea that young people with fragile X syndrome have “global” learning difficulties.


To learn more about this study, please use the following links to access the published journal article in Science Direct, here.

Acknowledgments:

We would like to thank the families and young people who took part in this study for their time and dedication. Special thanks also to the Fragile X Society, who helped us advertise the study. This project was funded by the James S Macdonell Foundation.

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