Acute major depression is characterized by specific abnormalities in the way emotional material is attended to. In late stages of stimulus processing, clinically depressed and dysphoric individuals show difficulties to disengage attention from emotionally negative material. It is unclear, however, whether aberrant disengagement is a transitory attentional phenomenon tied to depressive symptoms, or whether it constitutes a more stable disposition that outlast the symptomatic episode. To address this issue, the current study examined 39 currently euthymic individuals previously affected by major depression (RMD) and 40 healthy control participants reporting no lifetime psychopathology (ND). We used a gaze-contingent eye tracking paradigm designed to separately assess the attentional components of engagement and disengagement when viewing facial expressions of sadness, disgust and happiness. Never-depressed healthy participants, but not remitted euthymic individuals, showed speeded disengagement from facial expressions of disgust. We propose that the lack of this distinct acceleration in previously depressed but fully remitted individuals might reflect an attentional disposition that carries over to euthymic phases of the disease. On the other hand, a tendency to disengage quickly from areas in the visual field that convey social disdain could potentially act as a protective, possibly mood-stabilizing bias in resilient individuals.
Keywords: Attentional bias; Disengagement; Eye tracking; Major depressive disorder; Remission.
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