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Episodic memory impairment in bipolar disorder and obsessive–compulsive disorder: the role of memory strategies


  • Each author declares that they have no potential conflict of interest.

Thilo Deckersbach, PhD,
Psychiatric Neuroscience Program, Harvard Bipolar Research Program, Department of Psychiatry, 149-2611, Massachusetts General Hospital, Bldg. 149, 13th St., Charlestown, MA 02129, USA.
Fax: (617) 726 4078;


Background:  There is evidence that individuals with bipolar disorder exhibit neuropsychological impairments not only during mood episodes but also when they are euthymic. One of the most consistently reported cognitive problems in euthymic individuals with bipolar disorder is an impairment in verbal episodic memory. Verbal learning and memory depend on individuals’ ability to organize verbal information appropriately during learning. The purpose of the present study was (i) to determine whether episodic memory impairment in euthymic individuals with bipolar disorder is mediated by impairments in organization of verbal information during learning and (ii) to compare the characteristics of memory impairment in bipolar disorder with that previously found in obsessive–compulsive disorder (OCD).

Methods:  Study participants were 30 individuals with DSM-IV bipolar I disorder (BP-I), 30 individuals with DSM-IV OCD and 30 normal control participants matched for age, gender and education. Participants completed the California Verbal Learning Test (CVLT), a well-established measure of verbal learning and memory that enables assessment of verbal organization strategies during learning.

Results:  Compared with control subjects, both BP-I and OCD participants showed impaired performance in long-delayed free recall and verbal organization strategies during learning. BP-I participants showed greater long-delay free recall difficulties but not greater verbal organization difficulties during learning than OCD participants. For OCD participants, the long-delay recall impairment was mediated by difficulties using verbal organizational strategies during learning. In contrast, the group difference in long-delayed free recall between BP-I and control participants remained significant even when semantic clustering was introduced as a mediator. This indicated that BP-I participants’ long-delayed free recall difficulties were mediated to a lesser extent by difficulties using verbal organizational strategies than for OCD participants.

Conclusions:  Verbal episodic memory problems in individuals with bipolar I disorder and OCD are mediated to different degrees by difficulties using semantic clustering encoding strategies compared with control participants.