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When less is more: a functional magnetic resonance imaging study of verbal working memory in remitted depressed patients

  • R. Norbury (a1), B. Godlewska (a2) and P. J. Cowen (a2)



Patients with depression show abnormalities in the neural circuitry supporting working memory. However, it is unclear if these abnormalities are present in unmedicated remitted depressed patients. To address this question, the current study employed functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), in combination with a simple verbal n-back task, in a cohort of unmedicated remitted depressed patients.


We studied 15 healthy control subjects (HC) and 15 unmedicated remitted depressed patients (rMDD). Participants performed a verbal working memory task of varying cognitive load (n-back) while undergoing fMRI. We used multiple regression analyses to assess overall capacity (1-, 2-, 3-back versus 0-back) as well as quadratic modulation of cognitive demand.


Performance accuracy and response latency did not differ between groups, and overall capacity was similar. However, rMDD showed a positive quadratic load response in the bilateral hippocampus; the converse was true for HC.


Our data suggest that remitted depression was associated with a perturbed pattern of activation in the bilateral hippocampus during a verbal working memory task. We propose that a reduced ability to dampen task-irrelevant activity may reflect a neurobiological risk factor for recurrent depression.


Corresponding author

* Address for correspondence: R. Norbury, Department of Psychology, Whitelands College, University of Roehampton, Holybourne Avenue, London SW15 4JD, UK. (Email:


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