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Practice effects in healthy adults: A longitudinal study on frequent repetitive cognitive testing

Claudia Bartels*, Martin Wegrzyn, Anne Wiedl, Verena Ackermann and Hannelore Ehrenreich*

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Division of Clinical Neuroscience, Max Planck Institute of Experimental Medicine, Göttingen, Germany

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BMC Neuroscience 2010, 11:118  doi:10.1186/1471-2202-11-118

Published: 16 September 2010



Cognitive deterioration is a core symptom of many neuropsychiatric disorders and target of increasing significance for novel treatment strategies. Hence, its reliable capture in long-term follow-up studies is prerequisite for recording the natural course of diseases and for estimating potential benefits of therapeutic interventions. Since repeated neuropsychological testing is required for respective longitudinal study designs, occurrence, time pattern and magnitude of practice effects on cognition have to be understood first under healthy good-performance conditions to enable design optimization and result interpretation in disease trials.


Healthy adults (N = 36; 47.3 ± 12.0 years; mean IQ 127.0 ± 14.1; 58% males) completed 7 testing sessions, distributed asymmetrically from high to low frequency, over 1 year (baseline, weeks 2-3, 6, 9, months 3, 6, 12). The neuropsychological test battery covered 6 major cognitive domains by several well-established tests each.


Most tests exhibited a similar pattern upon repetition: (1) Clinically relevant practice effects during high-frequency testing until month 3 (Cohen's d 0.36-1.19), most pronounced early on, and (2) a performance plateau thereafter upon low-frequency testing. Few tests were non-susceptible to practice or limited by ceiling effects. Influence of confounding variables (age, IQ, personality) was minor.


Practice effects are prominent particularly in the early phase of high-frequency repetitive cognitive testing of healthy well-performing subjects. An optimal combination and timing of tests, as extractable from this study, will aid in controlling their impact. Moreover, normative data for serial testing may now be collected to assess normal learning curves as important comparative readout of pathological cognitive processes.