Psychological Medicine

Decreased working memory and processing speed mediate cognitive impairment in geriatric depression

R. D. NEBES a1c1, M. A. BUTTERS a1, B. H. MULSANT a1, B. G. POLLOCK a1, M. D. ZMUDA a1, P. R. HOUCK a1 and C. F. REYNOLDS III a1
a1 Department of Psychiatry, University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine, Pittsburgh, PA, USA


Background. While neuropsychological dysfunction is common in geriatric depression, not all aspects of cognition are equally affected. It has been suggested that depressed patients are impaired only in tasks that make heavy demands on processing resources and that a resource decrement therefore underlies the neuropsychological decrements seen in geriatric depression. The present study examined whether processing resources in the form of working memory and information processing speed are decreased in depression and whether a decrease in these resources actually mediates neuropsychological impairment.

Methods. Measures of processing resources were administered to elderly depressed patients prior to treatment and to age-matched controls. Patients whose depression remitted were retested as were the controls. Subjects also received neuropsychological tests of episodic memory and visuospatial performance.

Results. Depressed patients performed significantly worse on measures of both processing speed and working memory. While performance on these measures improved in patients whose depression remitted, the amount of improvement was no greater than that seen in the controls with repeat testing. Hierarchical regression analyses showed that depression explained a significant amount of variance on the neuropsychological tasks. However, if the variance associated with processing resources was removed first, depression no longer accounted for a significant amount of neuropsychological variance.

Conclusions. Processing resources are decreased in elderly depressed patients and this decrease in resources appears to mediate impairments in several areas of neuropsychological functioning including episodic memory and visuospatial performance. The resource decrement persists after remission of the depression and thus may be a trait marker of geriatric depression.

c1 Address for correspondence: Dr Robert D. Nebes, Western Psychiatric Institute and Clinic, 3811 O'Hara Street, Pittsburgh, PA 15213, USA.