There is substantial evidence that many depressed individuals experience impaired executive functioning. Understanding the causes of executive dysfunction in depression is clinically important because cognitive impairment is a substantial contributor to functional impairment. This study investigated whether elevated levels of an inflammatory cytokine [interleukin-6 (IL-6)] and/or higher body mass index (BMI) concurrently and/or prospectively accounted for the relationship between depressive symptoms and impaired executive functioning in adolescents.
A diverse, community sample of adolescents (N = 288; mean age = 16.33; 51.4% female; 59.0% African-American) completed assessments of height and weight, IL-6, depressive symptoms, and self-report/behavioral measures of executive functioning (selective attention, switching attention) and future orientation annually over 3 years. Adolescents experiencing acute illness or medical conditions that affect inflammation were excluded from analyses. Path analysis within a structural equation modeling framework simultaneously examined the concurrent and prospective relationships between BMI, IL-6, depressive symptoms, and the measures of cognitive functioning across three timepoints.
Across all timepoints, higher BMI was prospectively associated with higher levels of IL-6 and depressive symptoms, while higher levels of IL-6 were associated with worse performance on three behavioral and self-report measures of cognitive functioning. Higher depressive symptoms also were prospectively associated with elevated IL-6 and both higher depressive symptoms and a higher BMI predicted worse future executive functioning via increased IL-6.
More severe depressive symptoms and increased BMI may disrupt executive functioning via elevated IL-6.