Working memory impairment in people with Williams syndrome: Effects of delay, task and stimuli

Kirsten O'Hearn, Susan Courtney, Whitney Street, Barbara Landau

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

39 Scopus citations


Williams syndrome (WS) is a neurodevelopmental disorder associated with impaired visuospatial representations subserved by the dorsal stream and relatively strong object recognition abilities subserved by the ventral stream. There is conflicting evidence on whether this uneven pattern in WS extends to working memory (WM). The present studies provide a new perspective, testing WM for a single stimulus using a delayed recognition paradigm in individuals with WS and typically developing children matched for mental age (MA matches). In three experiments, participants judged whether a second stimulus 'matched' an initial sample, either in location or identity. We first examined memory for faces, houses and locations using a 5 s delay (Experiment 1) and a 2 s delay (Experiment 2). We then tested memory for human faces, houses, cat faces, and shoes with a 2 s delay using a new set of stimuli that were better controlled for expression, hairline and orientation (Experiment 3). With the 5 s delay (Experiment 1), the WS group was impaired overall compared to MA matches. While participants with WS tended to perform more poorly than MA matches with the 2 s delay, they also exhibited an uneven profile compared to MA matches. Face recognition was relatively preserved in WS with friendly faces (Experiment 2) but not when the faces had a neutral expression and were less natural looking (Experiment 3). Experiment 3 indicated that memory for object identity was relatively stronger than memory for location in WS. These findings reveal an overall WM impairment in WS that can be overcome under some conditions. Abnormalities in the parietal lobe/dorsal stream in WS may damage not only the representation of spatial location but may also impact WM for visual stimuli more generally.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)495-503
Number of pages9
JournalBrain and Cognition
Issue number3
StatePublished - Apr 2009


  • Development
  • Developmental disorder
  • Dorsal stream
  • Frontoparietal
  • Parietal lobe
  • Spatial representation
  • Visuospatial
  • Williams syndrome
  • Working memory

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Neuropsychology and Physiological Psychology
  • Experimental and Cognitive Psychology
  • Developmental and Educational Psychology
  • Arts and Humanities (miscellaneous)
  • Cognitive Neuroscience


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