Social Processing Deficits in Remitted Adolescent Depression

Project: Research project

Project Details


Major depressive disorder (MDD) is a leading cause of disability worldwide,1 with the peak period of onset occurring during adolescence.26 Presently, 40 to 70 percent of adolescents relapse (i.e., re-emergence of depressive symptoms following remission)2 within 5 years of their initial diagnosis.3,4 MDD relapse is problematic in adolescence, as it predicts academic difficulties, risky behavior engagement, and suicide.5,6 Thus, identifying mechanisms of MDD relapse is critical to clarify intervention targets for this significant public health problem. Adolescence is a period of storm and stress.7 During this developmental phase, social processes and dynamics (especially involving peers) are particularly significant for adolescents and may contribute to MDD relapse in those with pre-existing socioemotional difficulties.8-10 Social processes, however, are heterogeneous, and it is unclear which are most central to MDD relapse. NIMH’s Research Domain Criteria (RDoC) provides a useful framework to examine the role of social processes in MDD relapse, as it identifies fundamental dimensional constructs that map onto specific neural deficits. The present project adopts an RDoC-lens and uses multiple measures (i.e., behavior, eye-tracking, event-related potentials [ERPs]) to test whether adolescents (aged 13-17 years) with remitted depression (remMDD, N = 200) exhibit abnormal social processes relative to healthy controls (HC, N = 100), and moreover, whether these processes lead to MDD relapse. Towards this goal, the proposed project will probe three, interrelated social processes core to interpersonal theories of adolescent MDD, including processing of: (i) nonverbal social information, (ii) socioemotional feedback, and (iii) socioemotional communication.11 First, Aim 1 will test whether remMDD adolescents abnormally process two types of nonverbal social information—facial expressions and emotional gestures. Accurate processing of facial expressions is essential for effective social communication; prior research has demonstrated that depressed youth have difficulty accurately identifying emotional expressions (particularly happy)12, which may stem from electrocortical dysfunction associated with facial processing (the ERP marker, N170).13-15 Similarly, emotional gesturing is critical for effective social communication. While few studies have examined gestural processing in MDD,16,17 our pilot data suggests that depression is associated with reduced attention (assessed via eye-tracking) to emotional gestures. Second, Aim 2 will test whether remMDD adolescents abnormally process socioemotional feedback (being accepted versus rejected by same-aged peers), a well-established trigger of adolescent MDD.18,19 We will use an ecologically valid peer evaluation task to test whether remMDD adolescents exhibit reduced neurophysiological attention and emotional encoding (the ERP marker, the Late Positive Potential [LPP]) following positive social feedback from faux peers.20 Third, in addition to using laboratory measures to elucidate mechanisms central for social functioning, the present study will collect real-time indicators of social functioning through adolescents’ natural smartphone use (e.g., texts, social media posts) over a 3-month period. Assessing social functioning from smartphones is particularly important and ecologically valid as youth primarily use smartphones to communicate with their social networks.21 Using an innovative smartphone app, Aim 3 will collect multiple indicators of socioemotional communication—the structure of adolescents
Effective start/end date12/1/1910/31/23


  • Research Foundation for Mental Hygiene, Inc. (147186 // 5R01MH119771-02)
  • National Institute of Mental Health (147186 // 5R01MH119771-02)


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