This study aimed to identify vulnerability patterns in psychological, physiological and neural responses to mild psychosocial challenge in a population that is at a direct risk of developing depression, but who has not as yet succumbed to the full clinical syndrome. A group of healthy and a group of subclinically depressed participants underwent a modified Montreal Imaging Stress task (MIST), a mild neuroimaging psychosocial task and completed state self-esteem and mood measures. Cortisol levels were assessed throughout the session. All participants showed a decrease in performance self-esteem levels following the MIST. Yet, the decline in performance self-esteem levels was associated with increased levels of anxiety and confusion in the healthy group, but increased levels of depression in the subclinical group, following the MIST. The subclinical group showed overall lower cortisol levels compared with the healthy group. The degree of change in activity in the subgenual anterior cingulate cortex in response to negative evaluation was associated with increased levels of depression in the whole sample. Findings suggest that even in response to a mild psychosocial challenge, those individuals vulnerable to depression already show important maladaptive response patterns at psychological and neural levels. The findings point to important targets for future interventions.
Keywords: cortisol; social evaluation; subclinical depression; subgenual anterior cingulate cortex; vulnerability.
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