For most people adolescence is a time of opportunity and excitement, but all the physical and emotional changes that take place can leave young people feeling sad, lonely, and discouraged. In some cases, this can lead to the development of major depressive disorder (MDD).
Studies of depression in adolescence have identified problems with brain function in frontal, temporal and occipital cortices. These areas are associated with memory processing. Cognitive biases are often demonstrated in adults with MDD, whereby attention is diverted to negative events, which are in turn more likely to be remembered.
A recent study published by members of the Department of Psychiatry focused on these cognitive biases in adolescents (aged 11-17). The study was designed to assess memory encoding and retrieval in adolescents with MDD and matched healthy controls. Participants were asked to perform a memory task during functional MRI scanning. While they were in the scanner, participants were shown positive and negative personality trait words (such as talented or cruel) and asked whether they would be pleased or displeased to be described in that way. Afterwards, their memory for each word was tested.
Irrespective of whether they were depressed or not, young people were more likely to recall negative words as they got older. Younger participants also generally had larger neural responses to negative words than older participants during recall, and this didn’t differ between depressed and non-depressed individuals.
During the initial remember of the words, however, participants with MDD had increased brain activity in the occipital and parietal cortices. Unlike young people with MDD, depressed participants did not have the changes in brain activity as they got older that were associated with remembering negative words in the occipital and temporal cortices.
We spoke to Professor John Suckling, one of the authors of the study, who added that:
‘Differences in the way emotional words are remembered by depressed young people as they get older strongly implicates alterations to the normal maturation of the brain during adolescence as one of the reasons for the emergence of symptoms. Tailoring the treatments available to the age of young patients could be important to improving outcomes for this age group.’
Written by Laurel Morris and Hannah Jongsma