Autistic People May Have Broad Memory Challenges, Says Study

Autistic people may have more expansive memory challenges than previously thought, which could explain why some have difficulty with facial recognition and social cognition.

Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) has core features mostly centered around expressive and receptive language challenges, sensory issues, difficulties with social interaction, and repetitive behaviors or restricted interests. However, not much is known about whether autism impacts memory or if memory challenges may explain other aspects of autism, like social cognition.

An autistic person's memory skills can be a double-edged sword. For example, while they may have superior recall of images or dates, they can also have difficulty remembering daily tasks which can impact executive functioning.

In addition, some research has found that autistic people have difficulty remembering faces, but other investigations suggest that autism is associated with broader memory issues.

Now, a study published in Biological Psychiatry: Cognitive Neuroscience and Neuroimaging may have uncovered more information about memory impairments in children with ASD.

To investigate the role memory plays in autism, Stanford Medicine researchers recruited 25 children ages eight to 12 with level one, or "high functioning" autism and typical IQ scores. They had the participants complete comprehensive memory tests to assess their ability to remember faces, written material, and images without people. The team also tested the children to see how well they could accurately recognize information and recall it later.

They conducted the same tests in a control group that included 29 neurotypical children of the same ages and IQ levels.

In addition, the participants underwent MRI brain scans to examine the connections between brain regions responsible for memory.

In the memory tests, the researchers discovered that autistic children had more difficulty remembering faces than neurotypical participants. Moreover, children with ASD had difficulty recalling non-social information.

In contrast, memory skills were more consistent among non-autistic participants. For example, if a child had good facial memory, they were also good at remembering non-social information.

"Among children with autism, some kids seem to have both impairments, and some have more severe impairment in one area of memory or the other," explains lead author Jin Liu, Ph.D., a postdoctoral scholar in psychiatry and behavioral sciences in a Stanford news release.

When the team looked at brain scans, they found that connections in the hippocampus — a structure that regulates memory — predicted the autistic participants' ability to retain non-social memories. However, remembering faces was predicted by another set of connections on the posterior cingulate cortex — a region that plays a role in social cognition.

They also found that the autistic participants' brains had over-connected circuits compared to non-autistic children.

The study authors say these findings suggest that general and face-memory challenges in autistic individuals "have two underlying sources in the brain which contribute to a broader profile of memory impairments in autism."

Senior author Vinod Menon, Ph.D., the Rachael L. and Walter F. Nichols, M.D., professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences, says, "Social behaviors are complex, and they involve multiple brain processes, including associating faces and voices to particular contexts, which require robust episodic memory."

Menon adds, "Impairments in forming these associative memory traces could form one of the foundational elements in autism."

The authors say that new therapies for autistic children should consider the scope of memory issues in autism and how these memory impairments impact social skills and learning.

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