Conversations in Science
for K-12 Educators

A program conceived and organized by the Wisconsin Initiative for Science Literacy at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, with the collaboration of the Madison Metropolitan School District and the Edgewood Sonderegger Science Center.

Thursday, May 12, 2005 at 4:00 p.m.

Cognitive Vulnerability to Depression

Lyn Y. Abramson
Department of Psychology, UW-Madison

About the conversation:

Why are some people vulnerable to depression whereas others never seem to become depressed? According to the cognitive theories of depression, the way people typically explain events in their lives, their cognitive styles, importantly affects their vulnerability to depression. Thus, as a complement to work emphasizing biological or genetic risk for depression, the cognitive theories of depression highlight cognitive risk for this disorder.

Recent work utilizing prospective designs such as the Cognitive Vulnerability to Depression (CVD) Project suggests that negative cognitive styles indeed provide vulnerability to clinically significant depression and suicidality. In contrast, optimistic cognitive styles protect against the development of depression and suicidality. Moreover, as predicted by the cognitive theories of depression, negative cognitive styles interact with negative life events to predict clinically significant depression. Negative cognitive styles are most likely to predict the onset of depression when people are faced with negative life events.

Given that negative cognitive styles do appear to provide vulnerability to depression, it is important to integrate work on cognitive vulnerability to depression with work on biological vulnerability to this disorder. I will present findings showing that cognitive vulnerability to depression is related to neural vulnerability (cortical frontal asymmetry – low left, high right) to depression.

What are the developmental origins of cognitive vulnerability to depression? Placing the cognitive vulnerability hypothesis in an interpersonal context, our recent work suggests the importance of developmental maltreatment, particularly emotional maltreatment, in contributing to the formation of cognitive vulnerability to depression. Thus, rather than constituting cognitive distortions, negative cognitive styles may, at least in part, be the internal representation of developmental maltreatment experienced by individuals. More generally, negative inferential feedback from parents to their children may set the stage for the development of cognitive vulnerability to depression.

Finally, the cognitive theories of depression, especially the hopelessness theory, have clear-cut implications for the prevention of depression. Insofar as negative cognitive styles appear to provide vulnerability to clinically significant depression, then interventions designed to prevent their formation in the first place or remediate them, once formed, should decrease future depression Recent work underscores the promise of interventions designed to prevent future depression by remediating current negative cognitive styles.

About the professor:

Lyn Abramson is a Professor in the Department of Psychology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Her research centers on the causes of psychopathology, especially depression. Professor Abramson's work represents a dynamic interplay between theory development and empirical studies to illuminate vulnerability and invulnerability to depression. She is very interested in building on the results of her research to develop programs to prevent the surge of depression that occurs in adolescence, especially among girls. Professor Abramson has received numerous awards for her work including recently receiving a WARF Named Professorship and being named as “One of the Most Highly Cited in Psychology and Psychiatry” by the Institute for Scientific Information. Currently, she is Director of Graduate Studies and Associate Chair in the Department of Psychology.

References and Suggested Readings:

1)  Abramson, L.Y., Alloy, L.B., Hankin, B.L., Haeffel, G.J., MacCoon, D.G.,  & Gibb, B.E.  (2002).  Cognitive vulnerability-stress models of depression in a self-regulatory and psychobiological context.  In I.H. Gotlib & C.L. Hammen (Eds.), Handbook of depression (pp. 268-294).  New York :  Guilford .

2)  Hankin, B.L., & Abramson, L.Y.  (2001).  Development of gender differences in depression:  An elaborated cognitive vulnerability-transactional stress theory.  Psychological Bulletin, 127, 773-796.