Behavioural activation treatment for depression in individuals with neurological conditions: a systematic review

Clin Rehabil. 2020 Mar;34(3):310-319. doi: 10.1177/0269215519896404. Epub 2019 Dec 26.


Objective: To evaluate the effectiveness of behavioural activation interventions for people with neurological conditions with comorbid depression, and explore content and adaptations.

Data sources: PsycINFO, MEDLINE, CINAHL, AMED, and EMBASE databases were searched on the 19 November 2019. Reference lists of selected full-texts were screened by title.

Review methods: We included peer-reviewed studies published in English that used behavioural activation for treatment of depression in adults with a neurological condition. Single-case reports, reviews, and grey literature were excluded. Methodological quality was assessed by two authors independently, and quality was appraised using Critical Appraisal Skills Programme checklists.

Results: From 2714 citations, 10 articles were included comprising 590 participants. Behavioural activation was used to treat depression in people with dementia (n = 4), stroke (n = 3), epilepsy (n = 1), Parkinson's disease (n = 1), and brain injury (n = 1). Sample size ranged from 4 to 105 participants. There were seven randomized controlled studies; however, no studies compared behavioural activation to an alternative psychological therapy. The effect sizes varied between small and large in the studies where effect size could be calculated (d = 0.24-1.7). Methodological quality of the included studies was variable. Intervention components were identifying and engaging in pleasurable activities, psychoeducation, and problem-solving. Adaptations included delivering sessions via telephone, delivering interventions via primary caregivers, and giving psychoeducation to caregivers.

Conclusion: The effectiveness of behavioural activation in randomized controlled trials varied from small to large (d = 0.24-1.7) in reducing depression. The content of behavioural activation was comparable to established treatment manuals. Adaptations appeared to support individuals to engage in therapy.

Review registration: PROSPERO 2018, CRD42018102604.

Keywords: Neurological conditions; activity scheduling; behavioural activation; behavioural therapy; depression.

Publication types

  • Systematic Review

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Affect
  • Behavior Therapy*
  • Brain Diseases / psychology*
  • Brain Diseases / rehabilitation
  • Depressive Disorder / etiology
  • Depressive Disorder / therapy*
  • Humans
  • Quality of Life