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Can cognitive interventions change our perception from negative to positive, and might that be useful in treating depression?

By Sarah Peters

Have you ever walked away from a social interaction feeling uncomfortable or anxious? Maybe you felt the person you were talking to disliked you, or perhaps they said something negative and it was all you could remember about the interaction. We all occasionally focus on the negative rather than the positive, and sometimes ruminate over a negative event, but a consistent tendency to perceive even ambiguous or neutral words, faces, and interactions as negative (a negative bias), may play a causal role in the onset and rate of relapse in depression.

A growing field of psychological interventions known as cognitive bias modification (CBM) propose that by modifying these negative biases it may be possible to intervene prior to the onset of depression, or prevent the risk of subsequent depressive episodes for individuals in remission. Given that worldwide access to proven psychological and pharmacological treatments for mood disorders is limited, and that in countries like the UK public treatment for depression is plagued by long waiting lists, high costs, side effects, and low overall response rates, there is a need for effective treatments which are inexpensive, and both quick and easy to deliver. We thought that CBM might hold promise here, so we ran a proof of principle trial for a newly developed CBM intervention that shifts the interpretation of faces from negative to positive (a demonstration version of the training procedure can be seen here). Proof of principle trials test an intervention in a non-patient sample, which is important to help us understand a technique’s potential prior to testing it in a clinical population – we need to have a good idea that an intervention is going to work before we give it to people seeking treatment!

In this study, we had two specific aims. Firstly, we aimed to replicate previous findings to confirm that this task could indeed shift the emotional interpretation of faces. Secondly, we were interested in whether this shift in interpretation would impact on clinically-relevant outcomes: a) self-reported mood symptoms, and b) a battery of mood-relevant cognitive tasks. Among these were self-report questionnaires of depressive and anxious symptoms, the interpretation of ambiguous scenarios, and an inventory of daily stressful events (e.g., did you “wait too long in a queue,” and “how much stress did this cause you on a scale of 0 to 7”). The cognitive tasks included a dot probe task to measure selective attention towards negative (versus neutral) emotional words, a motivation for rewards task which has been shown to measure anhedonia (the loss of pleasure in previously enjoyed activities), and a measure of stress-reactivity (whereby individuals complete a simple task under two conditions: safe and under stress). This final task was included because it is thought that the negative biases we were interested in modifying are more pronounced when an individual is under stress.

We collected all of our self-report and cognitive measures at baseline (prior to CBM), after which participants underwent eight sessions (in one week) of either CBM or a control version of the task (which does not shift emotional interpretation). We then collected all of our measures again (after CBM). In order to be as sure of our results as possible, there were a number of critical study design features we used. Our design, hypotheses, and statistical analyses were pre-registered online prior to collecting data (this meant that we couldn’t fish around in our data until we found something promising, then re-write our hypotheses to make that result seem stronger). We also powered our study to be able to detect an effect of our CBM procedure. This meant running a statistical calculation to ensure we had enough participants to be convinced by any significant findings, and their potential to be clinically useful. This told us we needed 104 individuals split evenly between groups. Finally, our study was randomised (participants were randomly allocated to the intervention group or the control group), controlled (one group underwent an identical “placebo” procedure), and double-blind (only an individual who played no role in recruitment or participant contact knew which group any one participant was in).

So, what did we actually find? While the intervention successfully shifted the interpretation of facial expressions (from negative to positive), there was only inconclusive evidence of improved mood and the CBM procedure failed to impact most measures. There was some evidence in our predicted direction that daily stressful events were perceived as less stressful by those in the intervention group post-CBM, and weaker evidence for decreased anhedonia in the intervention group. In an exploratory analysis, we also found some evidence that results in the stress-reactivity task were moderated by baseline anxiety scores – for this task, the effects of CBM were only seen in individuals who had higher baseline anxiety scores. However, exploratory findings like this need to be treated with caution.

Therefore, as is often the case in scientific research, our results were not entirely clear. However, there are a few limitations and directions for future research that might explain and help us to interpret our findings. Our proof of principle study only considered effects in healthy individuals. Although these individuals were clearly amenable to training, and may indeed have symptoms of depression or anxiety without a clinical diagnosis, our observation that more anxious individuals appeared to be more affected by the intervention warrants research in clinical populations. In fact, a reasonable parallel to the effects observed in this study may be working memory training, which does not transfer well to other cognitive operations in healthy samples, but shows promise as a tool for general cognitive improvement in impaired populations.

Future research is also needed to disambiguate the tentative self-report stress and cognitive anhedonia effects observed here. One possibility, for example, is that the 104 participants we recruited were not enough to detect an effect of transference from CBM training to other measures (the size of which is unknown). Given the complexity of any mechanism through which a computerised task could shift the perception of faces and then influence behaviour, it is likely that a larger sample is necessary. While it could be argued that if such a large group of individuals is warranted to detect an effect, that effect is likely too small to be clinically useful, we would argue that even tiny effects can indeed be meaningful (e.g., cancer intervention studies often identify very small effects which can have a meaningful impact at a population level).

Another explanation for our small effects is that while one week was long enough to induce a change in bias, it may not have been long enough to observe corresponding changes in mood. For instance, positive interpretation alone may not be enough – it may be that individuals need to go out into the world and use this new framework to have personal, positive experiences that gradually improve mood, and this process may take longer than one week.

Overall, this CBM procedure may have limited impact on clinically-relevant symptoms. However, the small effects observed still warrant future study in larger and clinical samples. Given the large impact and cost of mood disorders on the one hand, and the relatively low cost of providing CBM training on the other, clarifying whether even small effects exist is likely worthwhile. Even if this procedure fails to result in clinical improvement, documenting and understanding the different steps in going from basic scientific experimentation to intervening in clinical samples is crucial for both the scientific field and the general public to know. The current study is part of a body of research which should encourage all individuals who are directly or indirectly impacted by depression or other mood disorders. Novel approaches towards understanding, preventing, and treating these disorders are constantly being investigated, meaning that we can be hopeful for a reduction in the devastating impact they currently have in the not so distant future.

Read the published study here

Sarah Peters can be contacted via email at: 

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