Weak working memory linked to higher sexual risk-taking, UO study finds

Atika Khurana
Atika Khurana, College of Education

Adolescents who have weak working memory have difficulty controlling their impulsive urges, making them more prone to risky sexual behavior, according to a new study led by the UO's Atika Khurana.

Working memory is a portion of the brain that allows individuals to draw on and use information to plan and make decisions, as well as to consider the consequences of their behaviors.

The new study, published in the journal Child Development, found that young people with weak working memory were more likely to end up with sexually transmitted diseases and unintended pregnancies.

Khurana, an assistant professor of counseling psychology and human services in the UO College of Education, teamed with former colleagues at the University of Pennsylvania and Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia on the study.

The study followed 360 adolescents (ages 12-15, from a range of racial/ethnic backgrounds, and from families of low- to mid-socioeconomic status) for two years, examining the effects of working memory (measured at the start of the study) on changes in the youth’s self-control and sexually risky behavior.

The research, Khurana said, builds on her previous research with the same institutions, including a study published in 2014 that found adolescents with strong working memory were better able to put the breaks on problematic drug use.
The new findings provide a new way to look at preventive interventions, said Dan Romer, research director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania, and lead investigator of the National Institutes of Health-funded longitudinal project on which the study was based.

Full details of the study can be found a news release issued by the journal.