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Psychol Med. 2007 Sep;37(9):1281-91. Epub 2007 May 10.

Highly neurotic never-depressed students have negative biases in information processing.

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  • 1Department of Experimental Psychology, University of Oxford, UK.



Cognitive theories associate depression with negative biases in information processing. Although negatively biased cognitions are well documented in depressed patients and to some extent in recovered patients, it remains unclear whether these abnormalities are present before the first depressive episode.


High neuroticism (N) is a well-recognized risk factor for depression. The current study therefore compared different aspects of emotional processing in 33 high-N never-depressed and 32 low-N matched volunteers. Awakening salivary cortisol, which is often elevated in severely depressed patients, was measured to explore the neurobiological substrate of neuroticism.


High-N volunteers showed increased processing of negative and/or decreased processing of positive information in emotional categorization and memory, facial expression recognition and emotion-potentiated startle (EPS), in the absence of global memory or executive deficits. By contrast, there was no evidence for effects of neuroticism on attentional bias (as measured with the dot-probe task), over-general autobiographical memory, or awakening cortisol levels.


These results suggest that certain negative processing biases precede depression rather than arising as a result of depressive experience per se and as such could in part mediate the vulnerability of high-N subjects to depression. Longitudinal studies are required to confirm that such cognitive vulnerabilities predict subsequent depression in individual subjects.

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