How Depressive Thoughts Persist and Interfere With Memory in Depressed People

Intrusive, enduring, depressive thoughts are an ever-present part of daily life for people with depression. A first of its kind study from the Center for BrainHealth at The University of Texas at Dallas published earlier this year in the Journal of Affective Disorders shows that depressive thoughts are maintained for longer periods of time for people with depressed mood, and this extended duration may reduce the amount of information that these individuals can hold in their memory. The findings have far-reaching implications for understanding how depression damages memory, as well as how depression develops and persists over the course of an individual’s lifetime.

“People with depression or even healthy people with a depressed mood can be affected by depressive thoughts,” explained Center for BrainHealth principal investigator Bart Rypma, Ph.D., who also holds the Meadows Foundation Chair at UT Dallas. “We have known that negative thoughts tend to last longer for those with depression. However, this study is unique in showing that, these thoughts, triggered from stimuli in the environment, can persist to the point that they hinder a depressed person’s ability to keep their train of thought.”

For the study, researchers recruited 75 university undergraduate students; thirty students were classified as having depressive symptoms and 45 participants were categorized as not exhibiting depressive symptoms. All participants were asked to respond to a sentence featuring depressive thoughts, such as “I am sad,” or “People don’t like me,” or neutral information. They were then asked to remember a string of numbers.

Individuals with depressed mood forgot more number strings than people without depressed mood when responding to a sentence with negative information. People with depressed mood who were given the depressive thought first, remembered 31% fewer number strings, compared to people without depressed mood, and people with depressed mood who were given the number string first.

“We all have a fixed amount of information we can hold in memory at one time,” explained the study’s lead author, Nick Hubbard, a doctoral candidate at the Center for BrainHealth working with Dr. Rypma. “The fact that depressive thoughts do not seem to go away once they enter memory certainly explains why depressed individuals have difficulty concentrating or remembering things in their daily lives. This preoccupation of memory by depressive thoughts might also explain why more positive thoughts are often absent in depression; there simply is not enough space for them.”

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The authors suggest that this greater dedication of memory resources to depressive thoughts and consequently, an impoverished ability to hold positive thoughts in memory, might be the key to understanding how depression develops and continues throughout an individual’s lifespan.

“Interventions such as mindfulness-based cognitive therapy are quite successful in empowering depressed people to recognize and better regulate the content of their thoughts,” said Dr. Rypma. “Our goal is to continue to study how such therapeutic approaches can alter the depressed brain and how these alterations might result in better memory and outcomes for persons with depression.”

About this memory and depression research

Funding: Support for this study was provided by the Dianne Cash Fellowship award, the Friends of BrainHealth, and the Linda and Joel Robuck Distinguished New Scientist Award.

Source: Emily Bywaters – UT Center for BrainHealth
Image Credit: The image is in the public domain
Original Research: Full open access research for “The enduring effects of depressive thoughts on working memory” by Nicholas A. Hubbard, Joanna L. Hutchison, D. Zachary Hambrick, and Bart Rypma in Journal of Affective Disorders. Published online June 28 2015 doi:10.1016/j.jad.2015.06.056


The enduring effects of depressive thoughts on working memory

Depressive thoughts are known to persist in persons with depressed mood leading to rumination and exacerbation of depressive symptoms. What has not yet been examined is whether this persistence of depressive thoughts can lead to impairment of working memory (WM).

We assessed whether receiving a WM task featuring depressive cues could bias performance on a subsequent, non-depressive WM task for dysphoric individuals (DIs) compared to non-DIs.

DIs showed significantly attenuated performance on the WM task with depressive cues compared to non-DIs. Further, when DIs were given the WM task with depressive cues first, they showed deficits on a second WM task without depressive cues, compared to DIs given the non-depressive WM task first and non-DIs in either condition.

Unselected recruitment procedures did not permit balanced sample sizes in each group. Future research is needed to assess whether these results extend to a clinically depressed sample and whether WM deficits are the consequence of depressed mood, or a risk factor for the development and maintenance of depressed mood.

Results suggest that, for DIs, the influence of depressive cues on performance transfers to subsequent tasks in which these cues are no longer present. These results support the hypothesis that when depressive thoughts are part of depressed persons’ conscious experience, cognitive deficits arise. Further, these results suggest an ecologically-relevant mechanism by which day-to-day cognitive deficits in depression can develop.

“The enduring effects of depressive thoughts on working memory” by Nicholas A. Hubbard, Joanna L. Hutchison, D. Zachary Hambrick, and Bart Rypma in Journal of Affective Disorders. Published online June 28 2015 doi:10.1016/j.jad.2015.06.056

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