Variation in Parasympathetic Dysregulation Moderates Short-term Memory Problems in Childhood Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder

Anthony R. Ward, Gabriela Alarcón, Joel T. Nigg, Erica D. Musser

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle

15 Scopus citations


Although attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) is associated with impairment in working memory and short-term memory, up to half of individual children with ADHD perform within a normative range. Heterogeneity in other ADHD-related mechanisms, which may compensate for or combine with cognitive weaknesses, is a likely explanation. One candidate is the robustness of parasympathetic regulation (as indexed by respiratory sinus arrhythmia; RSA). Theory and data suggest that a common neural network is likely tied to both heart-rate regulation and certain cognitive functions (including aspects of working and short-term memory). Cardiac-derived indices of parasympathetic reactivity were collected during short-term memory (STM) storage and rehearsal tasks from 243 children (116 ADHD, 127 controls). ADHD was associated with lower STM performance, replicating previous work. In addition, RSA reactivity moderated the association between STM and ADHD – both as a category and a dimension – independent of comorbidity. Specifically, conditional effects revealed that high levels of withdrawal interacted with weakened STM but high levels of augmentation moderated a positive association predicting ADHD. Thus, variations in parasympathetic reactivity may help explain neuropsychological heterogeneity in ADHD.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1573-1583
Number of pages11
JournalJournal of Abnormal Child Psychology
Issue number8
StatePublished - Nov 1 2015



  • Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder
  • Executive function
  • Psychophysiology
  • RSA
  • Working memory

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Developmental and Educational Psychology
  • Psychiatry and Mental health

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