June 18, 2015
1 min read

Women with MDD drawn to images of angry faces have higher risk for disease recurrence

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Women who focused more on angry faces during a dot-probe task were more likely to have recurrent major depressive disorder, according to study findings in Clinical Psychological Science.

“Thus far, one of the most promising models for understanding mechanisms underlying the development, maintenance and recurrence of [major depressive disorder (MDD)] has come from cognitive theories of depression,” study researcher Mary L. Woody, MS, of Binghamton University, State University of New York, and colleagues wrote. “According to these models, biases in attention toward, interpretation of, and memory for negative information contribute to the development and maintenance of MDD, and during remission from MDD, these cognitive biases remain, serving as stable, trait-like risk factors that increase risk for MDD recurrence.”

Mary L. Woody, MS

Mary L. Woody

To determine if selective attention toward emotional images was a risk factor for MDD, researchers had 160 women, of which 57 had remitted depression, complete a dot-probe task that consisted of pairs of facial expressions that included one neutral expression and one angry, happy or sad expression. Study participants had a mean age of 40.27 years. Researchers followed participants for 2 years.

Eye-tracking measures indicated that women with remitted MDD showed more attention on angry faces, but not sad faces.

Reaction time bias and proportion gaze duration toward happy faces did not differ between women with remitted MDD and controls.

While reaction time bias scores for angry and sad faces was not a predictor of MDD recurrence, proportion gaze toward angry faces was, according to researchers.

Women who spent more time looking at angry faces during the dot-probe task had a significantly shorter time to depression onset.

According to researchers, the study findings were partially independent of other known risk factors for MDD, including baseline depressive symptoms, family income and past histories of recurrent MDD or anxiety disorders.

“Taken together, these findings provide convergent retrospective and prospective evidence that selective attention toward angry faces (as measured by a direct eye-tracking-based measure of attentional allocation) is an important cognitive vulnerability underlying risk for MDD recurrence in women,” Woody and colleagues wrote. “Our results underscore the importance of determining how individuals at risk for MDD recurrence process emotional information and have important implications for the growing interest in using attention-bias modification paradigms to treat depressed and at-risk individuals.” – by Amanda Oldt

Disclosure: The researchers report no relevant financial disclosures.