In a news story on the American Psychological Association website, findings from a meta-analytic review published in the Journal of Psychopathology and Clinical Science revealed that individuals who have rebounded from a major depressive disorder (MDD) episode show a distinguishing cognitive pattern, processing negative information more expansively and positive information less when compared with individuals without a history of depression.

Lead author Alainna Wen, PhD, a postdoctoral scholar at the Anxiety and Depression Research Center at the University of California, Los Angeles, stated, “Our findings suggest that people who have a history of depression, spend more time processing negative information, such as sad faces, than positive information, such as happy faces, and that this difference is greater compared to healthy people with no history. Because more negative thinking and mood and less positive thinking and mood are characteristic of depression, this could mean that these individuals are at a greater risk for having another depressive episode.”

This meta-analytic review assessed whether biased cognitive control characterized by continued processing of negative relative to positive material in working memory is a possible vulnerability factor for MDD recurrence. Meta-analytic techniques were employed to create findings from behavioral experiments that researched the cognitive control of negative and positive information in rMDD. The current study also explored potential moderators of the effects of interest, including clinical features, participant characteristics, and study design.

This meta-analysis of 44 studies involved 2,081 participants with a history of MDD and 2,285 healthy controls. All studies examined the participants’ response times to negative, positive, or neutral stimuli. The researchers noted that in some cases, participants were shown either a happy, sad, or neutral human face and requested to push a different button for each. In others, participants reacted to positive, negative, or neutral words.

The researchers indicated that healthy participants as a group responded more swiftly to emotional and nonemotional stimuli than participants with a history of depression, regardless of whether those stimuli were positive, neutral, or negative. However, participants who previously had MDD consumed more time processing negative emotional stimuli over positive stimuli compared with controls. The results also demonstrated that while healthy controls demonstrated a noteworthy difference in how much time they consumed processing positive versus negative emotional stimuli compared with those in remission from MDD, that distinction did not exist when comparing time spent processing negative versus neutral or positive versus neutral stimuli.

Based on their findings, the authors wrote, “This analysis suggests that people with a history of depression demonstrate greater difficulty in the cognitive control of negative than positive information. This imbalance in emotional information processing in working memory may increase the risk for depression recurrence.”

The authors also wrote, “The current findings highlight the importance of examining the processing of negative and positive information collectively when studying biased cognitive control in rMDD.”

Overall, Dr. Wen stated, “The findings suggest that individuals with recurrent major depressive disorder not only are less able to control the information they process than healthy individuals, they also display a greater bias for focusing on negative over positive or neutral information.”

“The findings have implications for the treatment of depression,” indicated Dr. Wen. “Focusing on reducing the processing of negative information alone may not be sufficient to prevent depression relapse. Instead, patients may also benefit from strategies to increase the processing of positive information.”

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