Computerized analysis of verbal fluency: Normative data and the effects of repeated testing, simulated malingering, and traumatic brain injury

David L Woods, John M. Wyma, Timothy J. Herron, E. William Yund

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

23 Scopus citations


In verbal fluency (VF) tests, subjects articulate words in a specified category during a short test period (typically 60 s). Verbal fluency tests are widely used to study language development and to evaluate memory retrieval in neuropsychiatric disorders. Performance is usually measured as the total number of correct words retrieved. Here, we describe the properties of a computerized VF (C-VF) test that tallies correct words and repetitions while providing additional lexical measures of word frequency, syllable count, and typicality. In addition, the C-VF permits (1) the analysis of the rate of responding over time, and (2) the analysis of the semantic relationships between words using a new method, Explicit Semantic Analysis (ESA), as well as the established semantic clustering and switching measures developed by Troyer et al. (1997). In Experiment 1, we gathered normative data from 180 subjects ranging in age from 18 to 82 years in semantic ("animals") and phonemic (letter "F") conditions. The number of words retrieved in 90 s correlated with education and daily hours of computeruse. The rate of word production declined sharply over time during both tests. In semantic conditions, correct-word scores correlated strongly with the number of ESA and Troyerdefined semantic switches as well as with an ESA-defined semantic organization index (SOI). In phonemic conditions, ESA revealed significant semantic influences in the sequence of words retrieved. In Experiment 2, we examined the test-retest reliability of different measures across three weekly tests in 40 young subjects. Different categories were used for each semantic ("animals", "parts of the body", and "foods") and phonemic (letters "F", "A", and "S") condition. After regressing out the influences of education and computeruse, we found that correct-word z-scores in the first session did not differ from those of the subjects in Experiment 1. Word production was uniformly greater in semantic than phonemic conditions. Intraclass correlation coefficients (ICCs) of correct-word z-scores were higher for phonemic (0.91) than semantic (0.77) tests. In semantic conditions, good reliability was also seen for the SOI (ICC = 0.68) and ESA-defined switches in semantic categories (ICC = 0.62). In Experiment 3, we examined the performance of subjects from Experiment 2 when instructed to malinger: 38% showed abnormal (p< 0.05) performance in semantic conditions. Simulated malingerers with abnormal scores could be distinguished with 80% sensitivity and 89% specificity from subjects with abnormal scores in Experiment 1 using lexical, temporal, and semantic measures. In Experiment 4, we tested patients with mild and severe traumatic brain injury (mTBI and sTBI). Patients with mTBI performed within the normal range, while patients with sTBI showed significant impairments in correct-word z-scores and category shifts. The lexical, temporal, and semantic measures of the C-VF provide an automated and comprehensive description of verbal fluency performance. This is an open access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License, which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original author and source are credited.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article numbere0166439
JournalPLoS One
Issue number12
StatePublished - Dec 1 2016

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Medicine(all)
  • Biochemistry, Genetics and Molecular Biology(all)
  • Agricultural and Biological Sciences(all)


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