Many children with autism spectrum disorders (ASD) have difficulty remembering faces, and a new study suggests that they have additional memory problems that may impact their behavior and learning.

Jin Liu and colleagues compared 25 children with high-functioning autism and normal IQs to a control group of 29 typically developing children. All of the children were between 8 and 12 years of age.

The researchers tested the children’s memory skills, including their ability to remember faces, written material, and photographs lacking social content. They analyzed the children’s ability to recognize information they had previously seen or heard, as well as their ability to recall information by describing or reproducing details they had seen or heard. Participants also underwent functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to measure functional connectivity in brain regions involved in memory.

As expected, children with ASD were poorer than typically developing children at remembering faces. Unexpectedly, however, their scores for immediate and delayed verbal recall, immediate visual recall, and delayed verbal recognition of non-social material were also lower than those of controls.

Liu says, “The study participants with autism had fairly high IQ, comparable to typically developing participants, but we still observed very obvious general memory impairments in this group.” In addition, the researchers found that facial memory and non-social memory skills were less consistent in the group with ASD. Liu comments, “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.”

The researchers say the memory problems they detected may put children with ASD at a disadvantage academically as well as impacting their social skills. Study coauthor Vinod Menon comments, “Social cognition cannot occur without reliable memory. Social behaviors are complex, and they involve multiple brain processes, including associating faces and voices to particular contexts, which require robust episodic memory. Impairments in forming these associative memory traces could form one of the foundational elements in autism.”

fMRI scans showed that for children with ASD, the ability to retain non-social memories was predicted by connections in a network involving the hippocampus, a structure that helps to regulate memory. However, the memory for faces in these children was predicted by a separate set of connections centered on the posterior cingulate cortex, which plays roles in social cognition and the ability to distinguish oneself from other people. In both networks, the brains of children with autism showed over-connected circuits relative to the brains of typically developing children.

Menon says, “The findings suggest that general and face-memory challenges have two underlying sources in the brain which contribute to a broader profile of memory impairments in autism.”

“Replicable patterns of memory impairments in children with autism and their links to hyperconnected brain circuits,” Jin Liu, Lang Chen, Hyesang Chang, Jeremy Rudoler, Ahmad Belal Al-Zughoul, Julia Boram Kang, Daniel A. Abrams, and Vinod Menon, Biological Psychiatry: Cognitive Neuroscience and Neuroimaging, May 15, 2023 (online). Address: Vinod Menon, Department of Psychiatry & Behavioral Sciences, Stanford University School of Medicine, Stanford, California 94305, menon@stanford.edu.

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“Children with autism have broad memory difficulties, new study finds,” news release, Erin Digitale, Stanford University Medical Center, July 10, 2023

This article originally appeared in Autism Research Review International, Vol. 37, No. 3, 2023

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