Study seeks depression prevention

Nov. 10, 2011, 2:59 a.m.

According to a recent psychology study, it may be possible to prevent depression in some adolescent girls at-risk for the disease through attentional bias training, which trains individuals with certain biases toward specific stimuli to remove themselves from their biases.

Ian Gotlib, psychology professor, recently found that attentional bias training could help prevent depression in girls ages 10 to 14, who have already demonstrated signs of elevated emotional stress. The research focused on girls whose mothers were diagnosed with depression.

“We know about half of them are going to experience some kind of a depressive episode within the next 10 years,” Gotlib said. “What we have been finding is that [the girls whose mothers have depression] are more biologically reactive to stress in the environment than girls without a family history.”

In his first experiment, Gotlib used real-time neural feedback training. The eight subjects simultaneously looked at images provoking negative emotional stimuli as well as an MRI image of their brains, depicting their response to the negative images. When the subjects were shown the images, researchers instructed them to think positive thoughts to diminish their negative response.

“We’re trying to teach the girls a skill that will make them less biologically reactive to stress with the hope that it [will] reduce the likelihood that they will have a depressive episode,” Gotlib said.

The control group was shown the same negatively stimulating images, but each subject in this group was shown an MRI image of a brain other than her own. This process contrasted the initial part of the experiment, in which girls were able to observe the impact their thoughts were having on their brains in real-time. The experiment indicated that the experimental group was much better able to reduce stress caused by the negative pictures.

For the second experiment, eight subjects were presented with two images of faces on a screen, one of them neutral and the other either sad or happy. The subjects were instructed to click on a dot, which replaced the more positive of the two faces. For the control group of the second experiment, the dot replaced one of the two faces at random. The eight subjects in the experimental group showed fewer signs of stress after practicing the dot exercise once a day for a week.

“One of the things we know about depressed people is that they cannot stop from processing negative information,” Gotlib said. “I think one of the things we are doing here is immediately making them look away [or] ‘disattend’ from negative stimuli.”

Gotlib said that such training had rarely been used for treating depression and is almost never used with children, whose risk of developing the condition is growing. He believes the stress-reducing techniques in the study can be taught to other children who are at risk for depression. He also stated his research may help develop drugs to treat depression.

Gotlib’s research may in the future be expanded using real-time neural feedback in deep brain stimulation. During this process, an electrode is implanted in the brain and sends electrical pulses to a particular structure.

“So if we can identify where in the brain that should be, then that should be another possibility,” Gotlib said.

Colin MacLeod, a professor of psychology at the University of Western Australia, has done research on attentional bias training and sees great potential for the applications of the Gotlib’s results.

“One reason that he’s really cutting edge is that he is looking not at people who already have problems and trying to fix them up, but he’s looking at the children who we know are vulnerable but who do not show symptoms and use these technologies that prevent rather than repair dysfunctions,” MacLeod said.


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