Exp Neurobiol 2006; 15(2): 55-63

Published online December 31, 2006

© The Korean Society for Brain and Neural Sciences

Modulation of Emotional Memory and Arousal in Asperger's Syndrome

Sang Hee Kim*, Misun Won and Opal Ousley

Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences, Emory University, 1551 Shoup Court, Atlanta, Georgia 30322, USA

Correspondence to: *To whom correspondence should be addressed.
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Asperger's syndrome (AS) is characterized by impairment in emotion perception and social cognition. Previous studies have suggested that explicitly provided verbal information may reduce the impairment in emotion processing. We hypothesized that the provision of emotionally arousing verbal descriptions of emotional pictures would enhance physiological arousal and subsequent episodic memory for the pictures. Six adults with AS and sixteen control participants viewed a series of emotional pictures while skin conductance responses and heart rate were recorded. One third of the presented pictures were presented with emotionally arousing verbal descriptions, one third with neutral descriptions, and one third with no descriptions. Participants subjectively rated the intensity of their emotional arousal elicited by each picture and subsequently performed a free recall task. We found that the provision of emotionally arousing descriptions led to increased physiological arousal, improved episodic memory for emotional pictures, and increased intensity ratings of emotional feelings in the control group. In comparison, in adults with AS, the provision of emotionally arousing descriptions led to increased intensity ratings of emotional feelings but did not lead to increased physiological responding nor increased episodic memory. Notably, the provision of neutral descriptions led to decreased physiological arousal but had no effect on intensity ratings or episodic memory in the AS group. The results of this study provided evidence that the provision of explicit verbal information regarding an emotional event alters the concurrent emotional reactivity and associated episodic memory in typical adults. In contrast, although adults with AS show increased intensity ratings in the presence of emotional verbal descriptors, they exhibit atypical physiological emotional modulation and do not show an memory enhancement from the provision of verbal cues. Thus, the overall impairment in social-emotional cognition in AS may arise due to the dissociation between cognitive and somatic aspects of emotion processing.

Keywords: Asperger's syndrome, emotion, emotional memory, arousal, skin conductance response, free recall