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Psychiatry Res. 1995 Nov 29;59(1-2):97-107.

Deficits in short-term memory in adult survivors of childhood abuse.

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  • 1Department of Psychiatry, Yale University School of Medicine, West Haven, CT 06516, USA.


Exposure to stress has been associated with alterations in memory function, and we have previously shown deficits in short-term verbal memory in patients with a history of exposure to the stress of combat and the diagnosis of posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Few studies of any kind have focused on adult survivors of childhood physical and sexual abuse. The purpose of this study was to investigate short-term memory function in adult survivors of childhood abuse. Adult survivors of severe childhood physical and sexual abuse (n = 21), as defined by specific criteria derived from the Early Trauma Inventory (ETI), who were presenting for psychiatric treatment were compared with healthy subjects (n = 20) matched for several variables including age, alcohol abuse, and years of education. All subjects were assessed with the Wechsler Memory Scale (WMS) Logical (verbal memory) and Figural (visual memory) components, the Verbal and Visual Selective Reminding Tests (SRT), and the Wechsler Adult Intelligence Scale-Revised (WAIS-R). Adult survivors of childhood abuse had significantly lower scores on the WMS Logical component for immediate and delayed recall in comparison to normal subjects, with no difference in visual memory, as measured by the WMS or the SRT, or IQ, as measured by the WAIS-R. Deficits in verbal memory, as measured by the WMS, were associated with the severity of abuse, as measured by a composite score on the ETI. Our findings suggest that childhood physical and sexual abuse is associated with long-term deficits in verbal short-term memory. These findings of specific deficits in verbal (and not visual) memory, with no change in IQ, are similar to the pattern of deficits that we have previously found in patients with combat-related PTSD.

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