Verbal working memory in schizophrenia: The role of syntax in facilitating serial recall

Adrienne Wing Yee LI, Nestor VIÑAS-GUASCH, Christy Lai Ming HUI, Wing Chung CHANG, Sherry Kit Wa CHAN, Ho Ming Edwin LEE, Eric Yu Hai CHEN

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlespeer-review

5 Citations (Scopus)


Background: Deficits in verbal working memory (VWM) have consistently been observed in schizophrenia, ranging from impairments in capacity, encoding, to irregular semantic organisation. However, syntactic deficits are less well-characterised, despite its crucial role in language construction. This study examines the role of simple syntactic structure (basis of the "sentence superiority effect") in VWM of patients with psychotic disorders. Methods: Patients with schizophrenia-spectrum disorders (n = 40) and healthy controls matched on age, sex and education (n = 40) were administered an auditory serial recall task containing word lists with low semantic coherence and either syntactically familiar structure (noun-verb-noun sequence) or syntactically unfamiliar structure. Other neurocognitive measures, symptoms and social functioning of patients were also assessed. Results: A 4-way analysis of variance (group. ×. version. ×. list type. ×. serial position) indicated that patients had significantly worse performance overall, suggesting a generalised verbal memory impairment. In addition, a significant interaction was found for list type and Group, demonstrating that healthy controls, but not patients, had superior performance in syntactically familiar word lists. A subgroup analysis of high-performing patients revealed that the interaction was not an artefact of poor verbal memory, but a selective deficit in syntactic facilitation. Conclusions: Our findings may suggest segregated mechanisms for maintenance and computational aspects of VWM, and show that even simple syntactic structure facilitates recall of syntactically unfamiliar words lists. Additionally, schizophrenic patients show difficulty utilising syntactic information, which highlights the need to understand the neuropsychological basis of working memory and linguistic impairments in psychosis. Copyright © 2017 Elsevier B.V.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)294-299
JournalSchizophrenia Research
Early online dateApr 2017
Publication statusPublished - 2018


Li, A. W. Y., Viñas-Guasch, N., Hui, C. L. M., Chang, W.-C., Chan, S. K. W., Lee, E. H. M., & Chen, E. Y. H.. (2018). Verbal working memory in schizophrenia: The role of syntax in facilitating serial recall. Schizophrenia Research, 192, 294-299. doi: 10.1016/j.schres.2017.04.008


  • Psychosis
  • Cognition
  • Language
  • Working memory
  • Syntax


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