Executive function deficits associated with current and past major depressive symptoms

Keith Bredemeier, Stacie L. Warren, Howard Berenbaum, Gregory A. Miller, Wendy Heller

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Background Although there has been extensive research showing that depression is associated with executive function (EF) deficits, the nature of these deficits is not clearly delineated. Specifically, previous reviews on this topic have yielded different conclusions about the particular domains of EF that are disrupted in depressed individuals. Further, research on whether these deficits persist after depressed mood has remitted is less prevalent and not consistent. Methods In two independent samples of college students, we examined associations between clinical ratings of current and past symptoms of a Major Depressive Episode (MDE) and difficulties in two domains of EF: inhibition and shifting. In Study 1 (n=162), EF was measured using behavioral tasks shown to index these two domains. In Study 2 (n=95), EF was measured using a self-report questionnaire believed to capture EF difficulties experienced in daily life. Results In both studies, past MDE symptoms were associated with worse shifting. In contrast, current MDE symptoms were associated with worse inhibition, though only on the behavioral measure (in Study 1). Limitations Both studies used college samples and retrospective assessments of past symptoms. Further, only two domains of EF were examined, and the EF measures employed in each study have their own unique methodological limitations. Conclusions Findings suggest that inhibition deficits vary as a function of current symptoms and thus may be a by-product of distress rather than a causal contributor. In contrast, shifting deficits associated with depression appear to be more enduring, suggesting that they could contribute to risk for depression.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)226-233
Number of pages8
JournalJournal of Affective Disorders
StatePublished - Nov 1 2016


  • Depression
  • Executive function
  • Inhibition
  • Mood
  • Shifting

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Clinical Psychology
  • Psychiatry and Mental health


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