Working memory and reward association learning impairments in obesity (2014)

Neuropsychologia. 2014 Dec;65:146-55. doi: 10.1016/j.neuropsychologia.2014.10.004

Coppin G1, Nolan-Poupart S2, Jones-Gotman M3, Small DM4.


Obesity has been associated with impaired executive functions including working memory. Less explored is the influence of obesity on learning and memory. In the current study we assessed stimulus reward association learning, explicit learning and memory and working memory in healthy weight, overweight and obese individuals. Explicit learning and memory did not differ as a function of group. In contrast, working memory was significantly and similarly impaired in both overweight and obese individuals compared to the healthy weight group. In the first reward association learning task the obese, but not healthy weight or overweight participants consistently formed paradoxical preferences for a pattern associated with a negative outcome (fewer food rewards). To determine if the deficit was specific to food reward a second experiment was conducted using money. Consistent with Experiment 1, obese individuals selected the pattern associated with a negative outcome (fewer monetary rewards) more frequently than healthy weight individuals and thus failed to develop a significant preference for the most rewarded patterns as was observed in the healthy weight group. Finally, on a probabilistic learning task, obese compared to healthy weight individuals showed deficits in negative, but not positive outcome learning. Taken together, our results demonstrate deficits in working memory and stimulus reward learning in obesity and suggest that obese individuals are impaired in learning to avoid negative outcomes.


Cognitive dysfunction; Conditioning; Explicit memory; Impulsivity; Negative outcome learning; Neuropsychology; Obesity; Working memory