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There is contradictory evidence regarding negative memory biases in major depressive disorder (MDD) and whether these persist into remission, which would suggest their role as vulnerability traits rather than correlates of mood state. Early life stress (ELS), common in patients with psychiatric disorders, has independently been associated with memory biases, and confounds MDD versus control group comparisons. Furthermore, in most studies negative biases could have resulted from executive impairments rather than memory difficulties per se.
To investigate whether memory biases are relevant to MDD vulnerability and how they are influenced by ELS, we developed an associative recognition memory task for temporo-spatial contexts of social actions with low executive demands, which were matched across conditions (self-blame, other-blame, self-praise, other-praise). We included fifty-three medication-free remitted MDD (25 with ELS, 28 without) and 24 healthy control (HC) participants without ELS.
Only MDD patients with ELS showed a reduced bias (accuracy/speed ratio) towards memory for positive vs. negative materials when compared with MDD without ELS and with HC participants; attenuated positive biases correlated with number of past major depressive episodes, but not current symptoms. There were no biases towards self-blaming or self-praising memories.
This demonstrates that reduced positive biases in associative memory were specific to MDD patients with ELS rather than a general feature of MDD, and were associated with lifetime recurrence risk which may reflect a scarring effect. If replicated, our results would call for stratifying MDD patients by history of ELS when assessing and treating emotional memories.
One influential view is that vulnerability to major depressive disorder (MDD) is associated with a proneness to experience negative emotions in general. In contrast, blame attribution theories emphasise the importance of blaming oneself rather than others for negative events. Our previous exploratory study provided support for the attributional hypothesis that patients with remitted MDD show no overall bias towards negative emotions, but a selective bias towards emotions entailing self-blame relative to emotions that entail blaming others. More specifically, we found a decreased proneness for contempt/disgust towards others relative to oneself (i.e. self-contempt bias). Here, we report a definitive test of the competing general negative versus specific attributional bias theories of MDD.
We compared a medication-free remitted MDD (n = 101) and a control group (n = 70) with no family or personal history of MDD on a previously validated experimental test of moral emotions. The task measures proneness to specific emotions associated with different types of self-blame (guilt, shame, self-contempt/disgust, self-indignation/anger) and blame of others (other-indignation/anger, other-contempt/disgust) whilst controlling for the intensity of unpleasantness.
We confirmed the hypothesis that patients with MDD exhibit an increased self-contempt bias with a reduction in contempt/disgust towards others. Furthermore, they also showed a decreased proneness for indignation/anger towards others.
This corroborates the prediction that vulnerability to MDD is associated with an imbalance of specific self- and other-blaming emotions rather than a general increase in negative emotions. This has important implications for neurocognitive models and calls for novel focussed interventions to rebalance blame in MDD.
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