BACKGROUND: Functional MRI studies have begun to identify neural networks implicated in visuo-spatial working memory in healthy volunteers and patients with schizophrenia. The study of schizotypal personality disorder (SPD) provides regional analysis in unmedicated patients in the schizophrenia spectrum. METHOD: Unmedicated patients with SPD by DSM-IV criteria and normal controls were assessed with fMRI while performing a visuo-spatial working-memory task. It required the subjects to retain the location of three dots located on the circumference of an imaginary circle and then respond to a query display in which one dot was presented and the subject required to press a button to indicate whether the probe dot location was previously displayed. Subject groups did not differ significantly in spatial memory scores. The exact Talairach and Tournoux coordinates of brain areas previously reported to show activation with spatial memory tasks were assessed. RESULTS: The majority of these locations showed BOLD response activation significantly less in patients during the memory retention period, including the left ventral prefrontal cortex, superior frontal gyrus, intraparietal cortex and posterior inferior gyrus. Regions in the right middle prefrontal and prestriate cortex showed greater activation at a trend level for patients with SPD than for normal controls. In addition, we replicated the findings of increased activation with the task in healthy volunteers in the premotor areas, ventral prefrontal cortex and parietal cortex. CONCLUSIONS: SPD patients show decreased activation compared to healthy volunteers in key frontal regions and we also provided a partial replication of findings reported in healthy subjects.