Depressive symptoms, while common at any age, may differ between age groups. For example, changes in mood or emotional information may impact cognitive performance such as working memory. New research published in BMC Psychology found that adolescents without depressive symptoms display a bias toward faces displaying a positive emotion. This effect was not observed in adults or adolescents with depressive symptoms.
Emotion does appear to affect adults less so than adolescents differently and working memory does not fully mature until around age 19. Because of this, the study researchers were interested in assessing working memory in adolescents and adults both with and without depressive symptoms.
“As multiple studies suggest that depressed adults experience greater difficulty in manipulating material in [working memory] compared to healthy comparisons, especially when the material is negative, we hypothesized that when exposed to anger, this would have a bigger influence on [working memory] in those with depressive symptoms,” wrote study author Estíbaliz Royuela-Colomer and colleagues.
“Because adolescents have a heightened reactivity to emotional content, we hypothesized that the influence of affective material would be stronger in adolescents—both healthy and with depressive symptoms—compared with young adults.”
Researchers recruited a sample of 166 participants (74 adolescents) for this study. Participants completed a questionnaire to assess whether they had depressive symptoms or not. People with a history of diagnosed depression were not included in this study.
Participants were presented with faces of varying emotional expressions (neutral, happy, angry) and gender appearances (male, female) and were tasked with indicating whether the face matched a given gender (low cognitive load) or matched both a given gender and emotion (high cognitive load). Reaction times and accuracy of matches for this task were recorded.
Results overall indicate that anxiety did not influence any of the measures. For adults, results indicate that under low cognitive load reaction times were faster for angry and happy faces whereas under high cognitive load there were no differences in reaction time.
For adolescents with depressive symptoms, no differences in reaction times were observed. However, for adolescents without depressive symptoms, reaction times were overall faster for happy faces. No effects on accuracy were found for any of the relevant variables.
“The most striking result is that, during high [working memory] load, healthy adolescents showed a bias for positive emotions, improving (in valence condition) and impairing (in gender condition) performance, whereas this effect was not present in young adults or adolescents with depressive symptoms,” concluded the researchers.
“In comparison to adolescents, the positivity bias in young adults was absent, which supports recent research that documented a positivity bias in healthy adolescents, but not in healthy adults… Our results might have been influenced by the developmental differences in [working memory], and precisely, a heightened sensitivity to positive affective material in adolescents, which might explain why the positivity bias was not present in young adults during high load.”
The authors cite some limitations to this work including the relatively small sample size of adolescents with depressive symptoms and the inclusion of only three emotional expressions. Future studies might incorporate other emotional expressions and perhaps participants in other age groups as well such as pre-adolescent children.
Th study, “Comparing emotional working memory in adolescents and young adults with and without depressive symptoms: developmental and psychopathological differences“, was authored by Estíbaliz Royuela‑Colomer, Laura Wante, Izaskun Orue, Caroline Braet, and Sven C. Mueller.