Background. This study addresses the complex relationship between cognitive function and the course of depression.
Method. A sample of patients (n=73) in a depressive episode (major depression or bipolar disorder) was tested with a comprehensive battery of attention and executive tasks at both admission and discharge. In addition, response to pharmacological treatment and remission was assessed with standardized rating scales. Nineteen patients, recovered from depression, were re-investigated 6 months after discharge to determine whether specific cognitive parameters were related to subsequent relapse.
Results. On admission, patients were impaired in almost all cognitive tasks. At discharge, we found a significant reduction in psychopathology, but only marginal cognitive improvements. Non-responders after 4 weeks of antidepressive medication and subjects who did not achieve remission prior to discharge were specifically impaired in divided attention on admission (p<0·05). In addition, a trend was found for the association between impaired divided attention at discharge and an elevated risk to relapse (p<0·10).
Conclusions. We observed generalized cognitive impairment in most cognitive domains in acute depression. Cognitive impairments were still within abnormal ranges at discharge but less distinct. Divided attention performance predicted response to treatment, remission of symptoms, and risk to relapse. Impaired divided attention capacity can be explained either by reduced attentional resources or impaired activation and/or top-down control of attentional resources by the central executive.