In the current study we sought to dissociate the component processes of working memory (WM) (vigilance, encoding and maintenance) that may be differentially impaired in attention-deficit/ hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). We collected electroencephalographic (EEG) data from 52 children with ADHD and 47 typically developing (TD) children, ages 7-14 years, while they performed a spatial Sternberg working memory task. We used independent component analysis and time-frequency analysis to identify midoccipital alpha (8-12 Hz) to evaluate encoding processes and frontal midline theta (4-7 Hz) to evaluate maintenance processes. We tested for effects of task difficulty and cue processing to evaluate vigilance. Children with ADHD showed attenuated alpha band event-related desynchronization (ERD) during encoding. This effect was more pronounced when task difficulty was low (consistent with impaired vigilance) and was predictive of memory task performance and symptom severity. Correlated with alpha ERD during encoding were alpha power increases during the maintenance period (relative to baseline), suggesting a compensatory effort. Consistent with this interpretation, midfrontal theta power increases during maintenance were stronger in ADHD and in high-load memory conditions. Furthermore, children with ADHD exhibited a maturational lag in development of posterior alpha power whereas age-related changes in frontal theta power deviated from the TD pattern. Last, subjects with ADHD showed age-independent attenuation of evoked responses to warning cues, suggesting low vigilance. Combined, these three EEG measures predicted diagnosis with 70% accuracy. We conclude that the interplay of impaired vigilance and encoding in ADHD may compromise maintenance and lead to impaired WM performance in this group.
Keywords: ADHD; EEG; ICA; alpha; theta.