A brain imaging study published in Frontiers in Behavioral Neuroscience found evidence that the low mood that accompanies a romantic breakup can affect executive functioning. The researchers found that greater depressive symptomology among heartbroken subjects was associated with reduced activation of a network of brain areas involved in working memory.
The study’s authors Anne M. Verhallen and her colleagues were motivated by numerous studies suggesting that stress and depression are associated with neural and behavioral changes in executive functioning — and particularly, changes in working memory. The researchers proposed that one way to investigate these effects might be by studying people experiencing a recent breakup.
The researchers conducted a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) study among a sample of 71 subjects who had experienced a breakup in the past six months and 46 subjects who were currently in a relationship. Brain activity was monitored using an MRI scanner, while participants completed a series of n-back tasks — a working memory task commonly used in neuroscience studies. The task exercises varying degrees of cognitive workload, asking subjects to match a stimulus presented on the screen with a stimulus presented a number of trials ago. Participants also completed a measure of depressive symptom severity.
As expected, depressive symptomology was greater among the heartbreak group than the relationship group. Interestingly, while the two groups performed similarly during the high workload trials, the heartbreak group showed greater accuracy and a faster reaction time during the low workload trials when compared to the relationship group. The study authors say that this superior performance among the heartbreak group might be evidence of improved sensory information processing, which has previously been reported among people dealing with acute stress.
Next, the researchers looked for group differences in brain activation during the tasks. Compared to the relationship group, the heartbreak group showed reduced activation in the precuneus, an area of the brain implicated in memory retrieval. They also found that when the heartbreak group took part in the high workload trials, changes in precuneus activation were accompanied by changes in brain regions that make up the working memory network — the anterior cingulate gyrus, the supplementary motor cortex, and the lateral occipital cortex.
Moreover, among the heartbreak group, as depressive symptomology increased, activation decreased among a cluster of brain regions that included the anterior cingulate gyrus, precuneus, and the supplementary motor cortex — again, key areas involved in working memory processing.
“Given that our heartbreak sample includes otherwise healthy individuals reporting elevated depression scores after a stressful event, this specific working memory-related network may be of importance with regard to the transition from healthy behavior, and corresponding brain activity, to depressive behavior during a disturbing period in life,” Verhallen and her colleagues discuss.
While the sample did not include many subjects with clinical-level depressive symptoms (only a quarter of subjects), the findings offer evidence that even those who present with mild depressive symptomology can show changes in brain activation during a working memory task.
The researchers conclude that studying people who are going through a relationship breakup can offer insight into the relations between stressful events, depression, and executive functioning. Importantly, such research might shed light on possible risk factors for the development of clinical depression following stress.
The study, “Working Memory Alterations After a Romantic Relationship Breakup”, was authored by Anne M. Verhallen, Remco J. Renken, Jan-Bernard C. Marsman, and Gert J. ter Horst.