Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience
Patients with prefrontal cortex lesions are impaired on a variety of planning and problem-solving tasks. We examined the problem-solving performance of 27 patients with focal frontal lobe damage on the Water Jug task. The Water Jug task has never been used to assess problem-solving ability in neurologically impaired patients nor in functional neuroimaging studies, despite sharing structural similarities with other tasks sensitive to prefrontal cortex function, including the Tower of Hanoi, Tower of London, and Wisconsin Card Sorting Task (WCST). Our results demonstrate that the Water Jug task invokes a unique combination of problem-solving and planning strategies, allowing a more precise identification of frontal lobe lesion patients' cognitive deficits. All participants (patients and matched controls) appear to be utilizing a hill-climbing strategy that does not require sophisticated planning; however, frontal lobe lesion patients (FLLs) struggled to make required “counterintuitive moves” not predicted by this strategy and found within both solution paths. Left and bilateral FLLs were more impaired than right FLLs. Analysis of the left hemisphere brain regions encompassed by the lesions of these patients found that poor performance was linked to left dorsolateral prefrontal cortex damage. We propose that patients with left dorsolateral prefrontal cortex lesions have difficulty making a decision requiring the conceptual comparison of nonverbal stimuli, manipulation of select representations of potential solutions, and are unable to appropriately inhibit a response in keeping with the final goal.