Neural correlates of working memory in first episode and recurrent depression: An fMRI study

Prog Neuropsychopharmacol Biol Psychiatry. 2018 Jun 8;84(Pt A):39-49. doi: 10.1016/j.pnpbp.2018.02.003. Epub 2018 Feb 5.


Background: Patients suffering from major depressive disorder (MDD) show deficits in working memory (WM) performance accompanied by bilateral fronto-parietal BOLD signal changes. It is unclear whether patients with a first depressive episode (FDE) exhibit the same signal changes as patients with recurrent depressive episodes (RDE).

Methods: We investigated seventy-four MDD inpatients (48 RDE, 26 FDE) and 74 healthy control (HC) subjects performing an n-back WM task (0-back, 2-back, 3-back condition) in a 3T-fMRI.

Results: FMRI analyses revealed deviating BOLD signal in MDD in the thalamus (0-back vs. 2-back), the angular gyrus (0-back vs. 3-back), and the superior frontal gyrus (2-back vs. 3-back). Further effects were observed between RDE vs. FDE. Thus, RDE displayed differing neural activation in the middle frontal gyrus (2-back vs. 3-back), the inferior frontal gyrus, and the precentral gyrus (0-back vs. 2-back). In addition, both HC and FDE indicated a linear activation trend depending on task complexity.

Conclusions: Although we failed to find behavioral differences between the groups, results suggest differing BOLD signal in fronto-parietal brain regions in MDD vs. HC, and in RDE vs. FDE. Moreover, both HC and FDE show similar trends in activation shapes. This indicates a link between levels of complexity-dependent activation in fronto-parietal brain regions and the stage of MDD. We therefore assume that load-dependent BOLD signal during WM is impaired in MDD, and that it is particularly affected in RDE. We also suspect neurobiological compensatory mechanisms of the reported brain regions in (working) memory functioning.

Keywords: Depression; First episode; Recurrent depression; Working memory; fMRI.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Brain / diagnostic imaging
  • Brain / physiopathology*
  • Brain Mapping
  • Cerebrovascular Circulation / physiology
  • Depressive Disorder, Major / diagnostic imaging
  • Depressive Disorder, Major / physiopathology*
  • Depressive Disorder, Major / psychology
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Magnetic Resonance Imaging
  • Male
  • Memory, Short-Term / physiology*
  • Oxygen / blood
  • Recurrence


  • Oxygen