The genetic correlates of cognitive flexibility and their links to ideological thinking

Study code

Lead researcher
Prof. Trevor Robbins

Study type
Participant re-contact

Institution or company
University of Cambridge

Researcher type

Speciality area
Neurological Disorders


Why are some brains more flexible than others - while some brains are more cognitively rigid?

In this study, we recruited 1,400 participants from the NIHR BioResource to learn about the neurobiology of cognitive flexibility. We invited participants to complete a psychological task called the Wisconsin Card Sorting Test, in which they learnt how to sort cards according to a particular rule (for instance the colour of the card or the shape that was drawn on it). After a number of trials, the rule changed, and some people adapted well to the new rule (they were flexible!) while other people stuck to the first rule they learnt, even though it was no longer correct.

We then looked at how cognitive flexibility was related to genetic dispositions in the neurotransmitter dopamine, which is known to be related to cognitive control. We discovered a certain genetic profile that predicted cognitive rigidity and showed how multiple dopamine genes that activate different parts of the brain interact.

This discovery demonstrates the complex interactions of dopamine genes in psychological functioning and helps inform our theories of what makes a brain flexible or rigid, especially in the context of mental health disorders characterized by compulsivity.

We are immensely grateful to the volunteers who participated in our study and helped us learn about the psychology and neurobiology of flexibility.

Publication: Zmigrod, L., & Robbins, T. W. (2021). Dopamine, Cognitive Flexibility, and IQ: Epistatic Catechol-O-MethylTransferase: DRD2 Gene–Gene Interactions Modulate Mental Rigidity. Journal of cognitive neuroscience, 34(1), 153-179.