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J Affect Disord. 2012 May;138(3):268-76. doi: 10.1016/j.jad.2012.01.041. Epub 2012 Feb 27.

Neural correlates of depressive realism--an fMRI study on causal attribution in depression.

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  • 1Department of Psychiatry, Psychotherapy and Psychosomatics, RWTH Aachen University, Aachen, Germany.



Biased causal attribution is a critical factor in the cognitive model of depression. Whereas depressed patients interpret events negatively, healthy people show a self-serving bias (internal attribution of positive events and external attribution of negative events).


Using fMRI, depressed patients (n=15) and healthy controls (n=15) were confronted with positive and negative social events and made causal attributions (internal vs. external). Functional data were analyzed using a mixed effects model.


Behaviourally, controls showed a self-serving bias, whereas patients demonstrated a balanced attributional pattern. Analysis of functional data revealed a significant group difference in a fronto-temporal network. Higher activation of this network was associated with non self-serving attributions in controls but self-serving attributions in patients. Applying a psycho-physiological interaction analysis, we observed reduced coupling between a dorsomedial PFC seed region and limbic areas during self-serving attributions in patients compared to controls.


Results of the PPI analysis are preliminary given the liberal statistical threshold.


The association of the behaviourally less frequent attributional pattern with activation in a fronto-temporal network suggests that non self-serving responses may produce a self-related response conflict in controls, while self-serving responses produce this conflict in patients. Moreover, attribution-modulated coupling between the dorsomedial PFC and limbic regions was weaker in patients than controls. This preliminary finding suggests that depression may be associated with disturbances in fronto-limbic coupling during attributional decisions. Our results implicate that treatment of major depression may benefit from approaches that facilitate reinterpretation of emotional events in a more positive, more self-serving way.

Copyright © 2012 Elsevier B.V. All rights reserved.

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