Autism and Memory: New study finds broad deficits

Memory deficits in autism linked to hyperconnected brain circuits.

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Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is a complex neurodevelopmental condition characterized by impaired social interaction, communication challenges, and restricted behavior patterns. While the core symptoms of autism are well-documented, growing evidence suggests that individuals with autism also experience difficulties in various cognitive domains, including memory. Understanding the nature and extent of memory impairments in children with autism is crucial for developing effective interventions and support strategies to enhance their learning and overall quality of life.

New research from the Stanford School of Medicine reveals that children with autism face memory challenges, including difficulties remembering faces and other types of information. The new study identifies unique brain wiring patterns associated with these impairments. Published in Biological Psychiatry: Cognitive Neuroscience and Neuroimaging, the research suggests that memory struggles in children with autism extend beyond social memories.

The findings emphasize the need for a broader understanding of autism in children and improved treatment for the developmental disorder. The study’s lead author, Dr. Jin Liu, at Stanford University, highlights that memory difficulties can potentially hinder academic success, placing children with autism at a disadvantage in school. This challenges the traditional view of autism as a disorder primarily characterized by social deficits,” providing context for the finding. The traditional view of autism is that it is primarily a disorder of social cognition. However, the study’s findings suggest that memory impairments may also play a significant role in autism.

Senior author Vinod Menon, Ph.D., Rachael L., and Walter F. Nichols, MD, Professor and a professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences, said, “Social cognition can not occur without reliable memory. Social behaviors are complex, involving multiple brain processes, including associating faces and voices to particular contexts, which require robust episodic memory,” Menon said. “Impairments in forming these associative memory traces could form one of the foundational elements in autism.”

Autism, which affects approximately one in every 36 children, is characterized by social impairments and restricted repetitive behaviors. It exists on a broad spectrum, with some individuals unable to communicate or care for themselves while others with high-functioning autism lead independent lives with average or high IQs. Previous studies indicated that children with autism struggle to remember faces and may have broader memory difficulties. However, these studies had limitations in sample size and comprehensive assessment.

To gain clarity, a new study examined 25 children with high-functioning autism and average IQ alongside a control group of typically developing children. The participants underwent extensive memory evaluations and functional brain scans to understand the connections between memory-related brain regions.

Distinct brain networks drive memory challenges in children with autism, according to a study. Unlike typically developing children, those with autism had difficulty remembering faces and non-social information. Even though participants with autism had high IQs, their general memory impairments were evident. In typically developing children, memory skills were consistent. However, in autism, some children exhibited more severe impairments in one memory area than others. This unexpected finding aligns with the analysis of brain circuitry conducted by the researchers.

Distinct brain networks were found to drive different types of memory difficulties in children with autism, as revealed by brain scans. Non-social memory retention in children with autism was associated with connections in a network centered on the hippocampus. In contrast, face memory was linked to connections centered on the posterior cingulate cortex within the brain’s default mode network, which is involved in social cognition. Both networks displayed over-connected circuits in children with autism, likely due to insufficient pruning of neural circuits. These findings highlight the need for autism therapies to address the breadth of memory challenges and their impact on social skills and real-world functioning.

In conclusion, this Stanford Medicine-led study provides significant insights into the memory challenges faced by children with autism. By identifying distinct brain networks associated with different types of memory difficulties, the study contributes to a better understanding of the underlying mechanisms and calls for developing tailored interventions to address these challenges.

Journal Reference:

  1. Jin Liu, Lang Chen, et al., Replicable Patterns of Memory Impairments in Children With Autism and Their Links to Hyperconnected Brain Circuits. Biological Psychiatry: Cognitive Neuroscience and Neuroimaging. DOI:10.1016/j.bpsc.2023.05.002.

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