Background: While neuropsychological studies have consistently reported impaired cognition in elderly patients with unipolar depression, studies of cognitive function in younger patients with depression have produced equivocal results. The aim of this study was to examine the presence and nature of cognitive deficits in young patients with depression.
Methods: Neuropsychological function was assessed in 20 young patients with unipolar depression, in comparison to 20 age-, education- and IQ- matched controls. Subtests from the Cambridge Neuropsychological Test Automated Battery (CANTAB) were employed, as this battery has proved sensitive to deficits in middle-aged and elderly patients with depression.
Results: The patients were not impaired for short-term memory capacity, spatial working memory, planning ability, cognitive speed, delayed matching to sample or recognition memory. Compared to controls, the patients showed impaired subsequent movement latencies on the Tower of London task, suggesting deficits in the ability to sustain motor responses in depression. The depression group were also impaired on the task of attentional set shifting, requiring more trials to criterion at the intradimensional stage of the task and being more likely to fail the task at the extradimensional shift stage than controls. Further analysis indicated that half of the depression group failed to complete all stages of the set shifting task. These patients were more likely to have required in-patient hospitalization at some time during their illness.
Conclusions: These results indicate that there are specific cognitive deficits in young patients with depression and that their presence may be related to a history of hospitalization.