A functional magnetic resonance imaging study of verbal working memory in young people at increased familial risk of depression

Zola N Mannie, Catherine J Harmer, Philip J Cowen, Ray Norbury

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


BACKGROUND: Patients with depression show abnormalities in the neural circuitry supporting working memory. These abnormalities apparently persist into clinical remission, raising the possibility that they might be trait markers indicating vulnerability to depression.

METHODS: We studied 17 young people who had a depressed parent but no personal history of depressive illness (FH) and 15 healthy control subjects with no family history of depression. Participants performed a verbal working memory task of varying cognitive load (n-back) while undergoing functional magnetic resonance imaging scanning. We used multiple regression analyses to assess overall capacity (1-, 2-, 3-back vs. 0-back) as well as linear and quadratic modulation of cognitive demand.

RESULTS: Performance accuracy and response latency did not differ between groups, and overall capacity was similar. However, for both linear and quadratic load response activity, FH participants showed greater activation in lateral occipital cortex, superior temporal cortex, and superior parietal cortex.

CONCLUSIONS: Our data suggest that, as in depressed patients, maintenance of task performance in FH participants is associated with a significant increase in the load-response activity of the cortical regions involved in working memory. This neural abnormality could form part of the predisposition to develop depressive disorders.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)471-7
Number of pages7
JournalBiological Psychiatry
Issue number5
Publication statusPublished - 1 Mar 2010


  • Adolescent
  • Brain
  • Cognition Disorders
  • Depressive Disorder, Major
  • Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Magnetic Resonance Imaging
  • Male
  • Memory, Short-Term
  • Neuropsychological Tests
  • Personality Inventory
  • Risk Factors
  • Severity of Illness Index
  • Verbal Behavior
  • Young Adult

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