A new computer-based program designed to reduce an individual’s persistent bias toward negative thinking patterns has been found to lower depressive symptoms in teens with major depressive disorder (MDD), according to a new study at Hunan Normal University (HNU) in China.
Approximately 11 percent of American adolescents suffer from MDD. These young people are five times more likely to attempt suicide than peers without mental illness. For these teens, significant help may come in the form of attention bias modification (ABM), a novel computer-based task designed to slowly shift one’s attention from sad to neutral to positive word associations.
For the study, a team of researchers led by Dr. Wenhui Yang of HNU, looked at the short- and long-term effects of ABM tasks in 45 teens with MDD, selected from a school population. The researchers hypothesized that adolescents who participated in active ABM training would experience greater reductions in depressive symptoms compared with those in the control group, who took part in a placebo training.
Teens in the active ABM group completed eight 22-minute sessions over a period of two weeks to learn how to shift their attention from sad to neutral words. Nine weeks later, they completed four more 30-minute sessions designed to shift their attention from neutral to positive words, again over a two-week period. The placebo training consisted of the same types of tasks, but this program shifted the teens’ attention towards neutral and sad words equally often.
At the end of the initial two-week training session, the researchers discovered greater reductions in attention bias score and clinician-rated depressive symptoms for teens in the active ABM group compared with those in the placebo group. Even further, a greater number of participants in the active ABM group no longer met diagnostic criteria for MDD compared to participants in the placebo group.
Significantly, the shift to more positive thinking patterns appears to remain stable and even increase. After 12 months, the adolescents in the active ABM group reported even greater reductions in self-reported depressive and anxious feelings.
Based on these findings, the researchers conclude that ABM may be a potential treatment tool for mild to moderate adolescent major depression. Since most adult depression begins during the teen years, training for young people with depression may positively contribute to their overall quality of life.
The study is published in the Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry (JAACAP).