BACKGROUND: Impaired working memory is a core cognitive deficit in both bipolar disorder and schizophrenia. Its study might yield crucial insights into the underpinnings of both disorders on the cognitive and neurophysiological level. Visual working memory capacity is a particularly promising construct for such translational studies. However, it has not yet been investigated across the full spectrum of both disorders. The aim of our study was to compare the degree of reductions of visual working memory capacity in patients with bipolar disorder (PBD) and patients with schizophrenia (PSZ) using a paradigm well established in cognitive neuroscience.
METHODS: 62 PBD, 64 PSZ, and 70 healthy controls (HC) completed a canonical visual change detection task. Participants had to encode the color of four circles and indicate after a short delay whether the color of one of the circles had changed or not. We estimated working memory capacity using Pashler's K.
RESULTS: Working memory capacity was significantly reduced in both PBD and PSZ compared to HC. We observed a small effect size (r = .202) for the difference between HC and PBD and a medium effect size (r = .370) for the difference between HC and PSZ. Working memory capacity in PSZ was also significantly reduced compared to PBD with a small effect size (r = .201). Thus, PBD showed an intermediate level of impairment.
CONCLUSIONS: These findings provide evidence for a gradient of reduced working memory capacity in bipolar disorder and schizophrenia, with PSZ showing the strongest degree of impairment. This underscores the importance of disturbed information processing for both bipolar disorder and schizophrenia. Our results are compatible with the cognitive manifestation of a neurodevelopmental gradient affecting bipolar disorder to a lesser degree than schizophrenia. They also highlight the relevance of visual working memory capacity for the development of both behavior- and brain-based transdiagnostic biomarkers.