Working Memory Capacity Is Not Impaired in ADHD

Working memory (WM) and the processes related to working memory have been studied exhaustively with relation to attention deficit hyperactivity (ADHD). Children and adults with ADHD have cognitive impairments that are influenced by inattention and hyperactivity. One of the most significant deficits repeatedly found in research is that of working memory. But the particular effects and influences of WM impairment are still unclear and few studies have been able to demonstrate how WM impairment affects cognitive performance.

To address this gap in literature, Marjolein Spronk of the Department of Cognitive Neuroscience at Maastricht University in the Netherlands recently led a study comparing the WM in a sample of ADHD adolescents and non-ADHD adolescents. Spronk also compared how WM capacity and filtering of information, a critical component of WM processing, differed between ADHD adults and non-ADHD adults and between adolescents and adults. The participants completed high-load and low-load WM tasks, with and without distracters.

Spronk assessed performance by accuracy and time delays and found that the adolescents had lower performance scores and took longer than the adults to recall certain information. When Spronk compared ADHD and non-ADHD adults, there were no significant differences in outcomes. Similarly, when non-ADHD and ADHD adolescents were compared, similar outcomes were found. However, the adolescents fared worse than adults on all measures, regardless of whether participants had ADHD or not.

The only real difference Spronk discovered between ADHD and non-ADHD participants was on outcomes from low-load WM tasks. Specifically, when the task had only one element and a distracter, the ADHD participants performed worse than non-ADHD participants. Spronk believes that having fewer elements to focus on causes a higher probability of distraction for ADHD individuals. But again, this impairment was more evident in the adolescent group, suggesting that maturity plays a role in WM capacity and filtering. Spronk added, “Together, these findings suggest that there is no developmental lag in visuo-spatial WM-filtering or capacity in adolescents or adults with ADHD.”

Spronk, M., Vogel, E.K., Jonkman, L.M. (2013). No behavioral or ERP evidence for a developmental lag in visual working memory capacity or filtering in adolescents and adults with ADHD. PLoS ONE 8(5): e62673. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0062673

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  • greg j

    June 13th, 2013 at 4:12 AM

    There are always so many negative stories surrounding ADHD that I was ready for this to be another one of those.

    As someone with ADHD, who has struggled with this both as a child and now as an adult, I was pleasantly surprised to finally read that this isn’t the end of my life, because that’s what so many others research studies try to tell us.

    Look, I have to take medication for this and may have to forever, but I have learned to manage it and function in a relatively normal way. When I was young it affected my grades but I ended up graduating from high school and college as an honor student.

    I have a great job, a supportive family, and I am in control. I don’t let ADHD control me because it does not have to.

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