Upset and Unfocused: ADHD symptoms and cognitive abilities as moderators for working memory performance under varying levels of emotional load


Background: ADHD symptoms are prevalent among college students and frequently cause executive function (EF) impairments. While EF impairments are well studied in this population, the interaction between emotional arousal/mood, working memory (WM), ADHD symptoms and cognitive abilities (CA) still remains unclear. Methods: 50 undergraduate participants’ ADHD symptoms and EF were assessed through cognitive assessments and behavioral questionnaires before they completed WM tasks under varying levels of laboratory-induced emotional load. Results: Participants with high ADHD symptoms and/or low CA struggled with the experimental WM task. Under emotional load, those with hyperactive-impulsive ADHD symptoms struggled with self-regulatory aspects of EF: producing more intrusions and recognition errors. The CA groups’ deficits were tied closer to recall ability – with and without added load. Conclusion: These findings further support that there are many reasons for WM challenges and that there is no single assessment that can identify the underlying cause of these struggles.