Academic journal article Cognitie, Creier, Comportament

Neurocognitive Correlates of Child Anxiety: A Review of Working Memory Research

Academic journal article Cognitie, Creier, Comportament

Neurocognitive Correlates of Child Anxiety: A Review of Working Memory Research

Article excerpt


The present paper aims to provide an overview of current research investigating the impact of childhood anxiety upon working memory paralleling the mounting evidence documenting this relationship in the adult literature. We review mostly behavioral evidence, but we also consider neurobiological data and theories where available. From a processing efficiency perspective developed by M. W. Eysenk and M. G. Calvo (1992), the documented detrimental effect of childhood anxiety on cognitive performance, in general, and academic performance, in particular, is thought to be mediated by the impact of anxiety-biased processes upon working memory processes, at both the level of storage and manipulation of information. This effect is proven to be present even in emotionally neutral tasks, therefore not only in those that manipulate the emotional arousal and valence of the stimuli. Still, even if we keep the focus on available research at the behavioral level, the data regarding the extent of the working memory transitory impairment in anxious children, as well as its exact target, that is the verbal, visual-spatial or executive component of working memory, remain controversial. We attempt an in-depth task-analysis indicating that outputs of current studies are not directly comparable. We propose further lines of investigation, considering specific developmental aspects; finally, some emergent implications for educational and clinical practice are delineated.

KEYWORDS: childhood anxiety, working memory, processing efficiency theory, academic performance

In the adult literature, a consistent body of research has revealed several neurocognitive correlates of anxiety disorders, identifying specific cognitive and attentional biases associated with these disorders. While the available proofs regarding a specific memory bias as the one characterizing depression are inconsistent, there is a clear impact of anxiety upon working memory (WM) processes in tasks with high memory load or in Ego-threatening, stressful conditions. Childhood anxiety has a documented detrimental effect upon school learning and academic achievement; however, the mechanisms underlying these difficulties are far from being elucidated. This paper provides an attempt to integrate recent developmental studies within the adult literature in the field, underlying the current state of knowledge and individuating some potential fruitful directions of research.


Trait-anxiety, as well as state anxiety (especially related to test situations) is associated with atypical motivational, coping and school strategies that interfere with academic learning and performance (Gumora & Arsenio, 2002; Woodward & Fergusson, 2001; Rabian & Silverman, 2000; Phillips, Pitcher, Worsham, & Miller, 1980). Teachers of children with anxiety disorders often report increased school dysfunction, suggesting the presence of learning disabilities (Benjamin, Costello, & Warren, 1990). As a general outcome, anxiety disorders are also often associated to early school dropout (Van Ameringen, Mancini, & Farvolden, 2002; Kessler, Foster, Saunders, & Stang, 1995).

Nevertheless, the actual existence of specific learning disabilities has not been thoroughly documented. The investigation of neurocognitive correlates in the case of childhood anxiety has recently emerged, and its clinical or educational impact is still minimal. Executive functioning in general seems to be impaired in childhood anxiety (Emerson, Mollet, & Harrison, 2004; Toren, Sadeh, Wolmer, Eldar, Koren, Weizman, & Laor, 2000). Children with anxiety display rigid adherence to a specific pattern of response and difficulty in disengaging and shifting attention to another stimulus, especially after negative feedback (Toren et al., 2000; Eysenk, 1990).

In adults, the most reliable index of an anxiety-determined cognitive bias is the selective attention to threatening stimuli (Mathews, Mackintosh, & Fulcher, 1997; Williams, Watts, MacLeod, & Mathews, 1997, Benga & Cârneci, 1997), the results in studies with children being less clear-cut in identifying these attentional biases (see a review in Vasey & MacLeod, 2001). …

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