Differential role of visuospatial working memory in the propensity toward uncertainty in patients with obsessive–compulsive disorder and in healthy subjects

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Obsessive–compulsive disorder (OCD) is associated with visuospatial working memory deficits. Intolerance of uncertainty is thought to be a core component of OCD symptoms. Recent findings argue for a possible relationship between abilities in visuospatial memory and uncertainty. However, this relationship remains unclear in both OCD patients and healthy subjects. To address this issue, we measured performance in visuospatial working memory and the propensity to express uncertainty during decision making. We assessed their relationship and the temporal direction of this relationship in both OCD patients and healthy subjects.


Baseline abilities in visuospatial working memory were measured with the Corsi block-tapping test. A delayed matching-to-sample task was used to identify explicit situations of certainty, uncertainty and ignorance and to assess continuous performance in visuospatial working memory. Behavioural variables were recorded over 360 consecutive trials in both groups.


Baseline scores of visuospatial working memory did not predict the number of uncertain situations in OCD patients whereas they did in healthy subjects. Uncertain trials led to reduced abilities in visuospatial working memory to 65% of usual performance in OCD patients whereas they remained stable in healthy subjects.


The present findings show an opposite temporal direction in the relationship between abilities in working memory and uncertainty in OCD patients and healthy subjects. Poor working memory performance contributes to the propensity to feel uncertainty in healthy subjects whereas uncertainty contributes to decreased continuous performance in working memory in OCD patients.

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