Study: Overgeneral memory may be a risk factor for depression in children

Much is known about major depressive disorder in adults and even adolescents, but the mechanisms underlying the risk for depression have not been studied thoroughly. In a study published in Cognition and Emotion, researchers attempt to examine a possible risk factor for depression, overgeneral autobiographical memory in an at-risk population, children of depressed mothers.

The autobiographical type of memory consists of personal events and facts. This type of memory extends from specific memories to general memories; specific memories recall certain events (I finished reading this book on Tuesday of last week) whereas general memories “recall events that occurred repeatedly (generic memories) or events that lasted more than a day (extended memories)”. Overgeneral memory, which is when individuals display less specific memories, has been observed in individuals with depression.

Many studies that focus on overgeneral memory examined adults and adolescents. Overgeneral memory may be a “marker of vulnerability to depression,” the researchers said.

Researchers studied 223 never-depressed “children of mothers with and without a history of MDD.” Mothers were required to meet the criteria for major depressive disorder according to the DSM-IV (depression group) or have no diagnosis of a mood disorder (control group). The children were between 8 and 14 years old, and only one child per mother could participate. Researchers used specific depression tests designed for children to log depressive symptoms and different surveys to screen the mothers.

The autobiographical memory of children was evaluated using a test where children saw a word on an index card, and had to recall a memory relating to that word (ex. the word was happy, one child said “I was happy when I scored a goal in my game on Saturday.”) The memories were coded as either general or specific, and if they could not recall an event, it was marked as no response.

Children with mothers with a history of depression remembered fewer specific events than children with mothers without a history of depression. This research suggests that overgeneral memory may be used as a marker for depression in at-risk children.

Researchers commented, “if replicated, these results could contribute to the development of clinical intervention programmes that utilise memory specificity training to improve autobiographical memory performance and reduce depressive symptoms.”

Treatment could be modelled after current adolescent programs that focus on autobiographical memory. Focusing on memory with at-risk groups could be the path to reducing depression later on in life.