BrainHealth Team Shows Depression Can Hinder People’s Memory

Nicholas Hubbard

Nicholas Hubbard

Researchers at the Center for BrainHealth at The University of Texas at Dallas have shown that depressive thoughts can affect memory. The findings may have implications for the way cognitive deficits are diagnosed and treated in depression.

In the study published online by Cognition and Emotion, individuals with depressed mood show as much as a 12 percent reduction in memory compared to individuals without depressed mood when depressive thoughts are present. However, they perform similarly to those without depressive mood when depressive thoughts are not present.

“The results suggest that individuals with and without depressed mood generally have a similar ability to actively remember information. However, when depressive thoughts are present, people with depressed mood are unable to remove their attention from this information, leading to deficits in their memory,” said Nicholas Hubbard, the study’s lead author and a doctoral candidate working under Dr. Bart Rypma, Meadows Foundation Endowed Chair and associate professor in the School of Behavioral and Brain Sciences.

“Depression is an interference phenomenon. Rumination and negative thought loops interfere with a person’s ability to think. We hypothesize that when individuals with depressed mood are exposed to stimuli — a meaningful song or a place that evokes sad feelings — the brain fixates on that and can’t focus on daily tasks, such as a phone conversation or completing a grocery list,” Rypma said. “In a traditional laboratory setting, external cues that induce depressive thoughts and therefore interfere with cognitive performance are eliminated. In our study, we found a way to incorporate them and observe their effects on memory.”

Dr. Bart Rypma

Dr. Bart Rypma

The study included 157 undergraduate students. All participants completed a computer-based depression inventory that measured self-reported, depressive symptoms experienced over the previous two weeks. Sixty participants were classified as having depressed mood and 97 as having non-depressed mood.

Researchers assessed working memory, the cognitive function that allows the brain to store information for short periods of time so that other cognitive processes can occur simultaneously.

Participants with and without depressed mood were asked to respond “true” or “false” to a sentence featuring either depressive thoughts (e.g., “I am sad,” “People don’t like me”) or neutral information (e.g. “Most people agree that Monday is the worst day of the week”), and then remember a string of numbers at the end.

People with depressed mood forgot more numbers than people without depressed mood when they responded to the sentence featuring negative information, but remembered just as many numbers when they responded to neutral information.

“Depression affects 151 million people worldwide and costs Americans $83 billion per year. Much of these costs are related to loss of productivity and increased rates of disability. Understanding and accurately diagnosing memory loss in depression is paramount for developing an effective therapeutic approach,” Hubbard said. “Our findings implicate that therapeutic approaches such as teaching one to recognize and inhibit depressive thoughts could be a key aspect to treating cognitive deficits in depression.”

Using the new study paradigm, the research team plans to study individuals who meet the clinical diagnosis for depression.

“In the past, imaging studies have shown brain differences between depressed and non-depressed individuals, but the cognitive tests did not match up,” Rypma said. “Now that we can reproduce the cognitive deficits in the laboratory, we can look at neural imaging studies with more confidence.”

The research was supported by the Friends of BrainHealth, the Linda and Joel Robuck Distinguished New Scientist award and the Diane Cash Fellowship award.

Media Contact: The Office of Media Relations, UT Dallas, (972) 883-2155, [email protected].

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