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Am J Drug Alcohol Abuse. 2018;44(2):185-192. doi: 10.1080/00952990.2017.1344680. Epub 2017 Jul 20.

Working memory capacity and addiction treatment outcomes in adolescents.

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a Center on Alcoholism, Substance Abuse, and Addictions , University of New Mexico , Albuquerque , NM , USA.
b Department of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry , Oregon Health & Science University , Portland , OR , USA.



Brief addiction treatments including motivational interviewing (MI) have shown promise with adolescents, but the factors that influence treatment efficacy in this population remain unknown. One candidate is working memory, the ability to hold a fact or thought in mind. This is relevant, as in therapy, a client must maintain and manipulate ideas while working with a clinician. Working memory depends upon brain structures and functions that change markedly during neurodevelopment and that can be negatively impacted by substance use.


In a secondary analysis of data from a clinical trial for adolescent substance use comparing alcohol/marijuana education and MI, we evaluated the relationship between working memory and three-month treatment-outcomes with the hypothesis that the relationship between intervention conditions and outcome would be moderated by working memory.


With a diverse sample of adolescents currently using alcohol and/or marijuana (N = 153, 64.7% male, 70.6% Hispanic), we examined the relationship between baseline measures of working memory and alcohol and cannabis-related problem scores measured at the three-month follow-up.


The results showed that lower working memory scores were associated with poorer treatment response only for alcohol use, and only within the education group. No relationship was found between working memory and treatment outcomes in the MI group.


The results suggest that issues with working memory capacity may interfere with adolescents' ability to process and implement didactic alcohol and marijuana content in standard education interventions. These results also suggest that MI can be implemented equally effectively across the range of working memory functioning in youth.


Motivational interviewing; adolescent; alcohol; brief interventions; cannabis; working memory

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