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Working memory deficits in high-functioning adolescents with autism spectrum disorders: neuropsychological and neuroimaging correlates

Evelien M Barendse125*, Marc PH Hendriks5, Jacobus FA Jansen23, Walter H Backes23, Paul AM Hofman23, Geert Thoonen4, Roy PC Kessels56 and Albert P Aldenkamp12

Author Affiliations

1 Department for Research and Development, Kempenhaeghe, Expertise Centre for Epileptology, Sleep Medicine and Neurocognition, PO Box 61, 5590 AB, Heeze, The Netherlands

2 Department of Neurology and School for Mental Health and Neuroscience (MheNS), Maastricht University Medical Centre, Maastricht, The Netherlands

3 Department of Radiology, Maastricht University Medical Center, PO Box 5800, 6202 AZ, Maastricht, The Netherlands

4 Special Education School de Berkenschutse, Sterkselseweg 65, 5591 VE, Heeze, The Netherlands

5 Donders Institute for Brain, Cognition and Behaviour, Radboud University Nijmegen, PO Box 9104, 6500 HE, Nijmegen, The Netherlands

6 Department of Medical Psychology, Radboud University Nijmegen Medical Centre, Nijmegen, The Netherlands

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Journal of Neurodevelopmental Disorders 2013, 5:14  doi:10.1186/1866-1955-5-14

Published: 4 June 2013


Working memory is a temporary storage system under attentional control. It is believed to play a central role in online processing of complex cognitive information and may also play a role in social cognition and interpersonal interactions. Adolescents with a disorder on the autism spectrum display problems in precisely these domains. Social impairments, communication difficulties, and repetitive interests and activities are core domains of autism spectrum disorders (ASD), and executive function problems are often seen throughout the spectrum. As the main cognitive theories of ASD, including the theory of mind deficit hypotheses, weak central coherence account, and the executive dysfunction theory, still fail to explain the broad spectrum of symptoms, a new perspective on the etiology of ASD is needed. Deficits in working memory are central to many theories of psychopathology, and are generally linked to frontal-lobe dysfunction. This article will review neuropsychological and (functional) brain imaging studies on working memory in adolescents with ASD. Although still disputed, it is concluded that within the working memory system specific problems of spatial working memory are often seen in adolescents with ASD. These problems increase when information is more complex and greater demands on working memory are made. Neuroimaging studies indicate a more global working memory processing or connectivity deficiency, rather than a focused deficit in the prefrontal cortex. More research is needed to relate these working memory difficulties and neuroimaging results in ASD to the behavioral difficulties as seen in individuals with a disorder on the autism spectrum.

Working memory; Adolescents; Autism; Neuropsychology; Neuroimaging