What the ability to 'get the gist' says about your brain

February 17, 2017, Center for BrainHealth
Drs. Jeffrey Spence and Asha Vas investigate a test that may help doctors and clinicians identify previously undiagnosed cognitive changes that could help explain daily life difficulties experienced by TBI patients. Credit: Center for BrainHealth

Many who have a chronic traumatic brain injury (TBI) report struggling to solve problems, understand complex information and maintain friendships, despite scoring normally on cognitive tests. New research from the Center for BrainHealth at UT Dallas finds that a gist reasoning test, developed by clinicians and cognitive neuroscientists at the Center, is more sensitive than other traditional tests at identifying certain cognitive deficits.

The study, published in Journal of Applied Biobehavioral Research, suggests the gist reasoning test may be sensitive enough to help doctors and clinicians identify previously undiagnosed changes that could explain the daily life difficulties experienced by TBI patients and subsequently guide appropriate therapies.

The gist reasoning measure, called the Test of Strategic Learning, accurately identified 84.7 percent of chronic TBI cases, a much higher rate than more traditional tests that accurately identified TBI between 42.3 percent and 67.5 percent of the time.

"Being able to 'get the gist' is essential for many day-to-day activities such as engaging in conversation, understanding meanings that are implied but not explicitly stated, creating shopping lists and resolving conflicts with others," said study lead author Dr. Asha Vas of Texas Woman's University who was a postdoctoral fellow at the Center for BrainHealth at the time of the study. "The gist test requires multiple cognitive functions to work together."

The study featured 70 participants ages 18 to 55, including 30 who had experienced a moderate to severe chronic at least one year ago. All the participants had similar socioeconomic status, educational backgrounds and IQ.

Researchers were blinded to the participant's TBI status while administering four different tests that measure abstract thinking—the ability to understand the big picture, not just recount the details of a story or other complex information. Researchers used the results to predict which participants were in the TBI group and which were healthy controls.

During the , the majority of the TBI group easily recognized abstract or concrete information when given prompts in a yes-no format. But the TBI group performed much worse than controls on tests, including gist reasoning, that required deeper level processing of information with fewer or no prompts.

The gist reasoning test consists of three texts that vary in length (from 291 to 575 words) and complexity. The test requires the participant to provide a synopsis of each of the three texts.

Vas provided an example of what "getting the gist" means using Shakespeare's play Romeo and Juliet.

"There are no right or wrong answers. The test relies on your ability to derive meaning from important story details and arrive at a high-level summary: Two young lovers from rival families scheme to build a life together and it ends tragically. You integrate existing knowledge, such as the concept of love and sacrifice, to create a meaning from your perspective. Perhaps, in this case, 'true love does not conquer all,'" she said.

Past studies have shown that higher scores on the gist reasoning test in individuals in chronic phases of TBI correlate to better ability to perform daily life functions.

"Perhaps, in the future, the gist reasoning test could be used as a tool to identify other cognitive impairments," said Dr. Jeffrey Spence, study co-author and director of biostatistics at the Center for BrainHealth. "It may also have the potential to be used as a marker of in aging."

Explore further: New tool provides unique insight for those with traumatic brain injury

More information: Asha K. Vas et al, Sensitivity and specificity of abstraction using gist reasoning measure in adults with traumatic brain injury, Journal of Applied Biobehavioral Research (2016). DOI: 10.1111/jabr.12073 Asha K. Vas et al. Sensitivity and specificity of abstraction using gist reasoning measure in adults with traumatic brain injury, Journal of Applied Biobehavioral Research (2016). DOI: 10.1111/jabr.12073

Related Stories

New tool provides unique insight for those with traumatic brain injury

February 3, 2015
A new study reveals that individuals with traumatic brain injury (TBI) have significantly more difficulty with gist reasoning than traditional cognitive tests. Using a unique cognitive assessment developed by researchers ...

Training helps those with mild cognitive impairment

June 13, 2016
New research from the Center for BrainHealth at The University of Texas at Dallas shows that strategy-based reasoning training can improve the cognitive performance for those with mild cognitive impairment (MCI), a preclinical ...

Study finds cognitive performance can be improved in teens months, years after traumatic brain injury

June 11, 2014
Traumatic brain injuries from sports, recreational activities, falls or car accidents are the leading cause of death and disability in children and adolescents. While previously it was believed that the window for brain recovery ...

Small intestine GIST associated with better prognosis in younger patients

January 18, 2017
Gastrointestinal stromal tumors (GIST) are tumors that arise is the wall of the digestive tract, and most often occur in the stomach or small intestine. Though more common in later in life, GISTs can occur in adolescents ...

Research shows strategic thinking strengthens intellectual capacity

April 28, 2014
Strategy-based cognitive training has the potential to enhance cognitive performance and spill over to real-life benefit according to a data-driven perspective article by the Center for BrainHealth at The University of Texas ...

Study shows cognitive training can improve brain performance of students in poverty

December 9, 2014
The cognitive effects of poverty can be mitigated during middle school with a targeted intervention, according to researchers at the Center for BrainHealth at The University of Texas at Dallas.

Recommended for you

Animal study connects fear behavior, rhythmic breathing, brain smell center

April 20, 2018
"Take a deep breath" is the mantra of every anxiety-reducing advice list ever written. And for good reason. There's increasing physiological evidence connecting breathing patterns with the brain regions that control mood ...

Mechanism behind neuron death in motor neurone disease and frontotemporal dementia discovered

April 20, 2018
Scientists have identified the molecular mechanism that leads to the death of neurons in amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (also known as ALS or motor neurone disease) and a common form of frontotemporal dementia.

When there's an audience, people's performance improves

April 20, 2018
Often, people think performing in front of others will make them mess up, but a new study led by a Johns Hopkins University neuroscientist found the opposite: being watched makes people do better.

Signaling between neuron types found to instigate morphological changes during early neocortex development

April 20, 2018
A team of researchers from several institutions in Japan has found that developing neocortex neurons in mammals undergo a morphological transition from a multipolar shape to a bipolar shape due at least partially to signaling ...

MRI technique detects spinal cord changes in MS patients

April 20, 2018
A Vanderbilt University Medical Center-led research team has shown that magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) can detect changes in resting-state spinal cord function in patients with multiple sclerosis (MS).

Gene variant increases empathy-driven fear in mice

April 20, 2018
Researchers at the Center for Cognition and Sociality, within the Institute for Basic Science (IBS), have just published as study in Neuron reporting a genetic variant that controls and increases empathy-driven fear in mice. ...

0 comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.