Attentional bias modification is associated with fMRI response toward negative stimuli in individuals with residual depression: a randomized controlled trial

Attentional bias modification (ABM) may lead to more adaptive emotion perception and emotion regulation.


Background: Understanding the neural basis of these effects may lead to greater precision for the development of future treatments. Task-related functional MRI (fMRI) after ABM training has not been investigated in depression so far. The main aim of this randomized controlled trial was to explore differences in brain activity after ABM training, in response to emotional stimuli.

Methods: A total of 134 people with previous depression, who had been treated for depression and had various degrees of residual symptoms, were randomized to 14 days of active ABM or a closely matched placebo training, followed by an fMRI emotion regulation task. The training procedure was a classical dot–probe task with emotional face stimuli. In the active ABM condition, the probes replaced the more positively valenced face of a given pair. As participants implicitly learned to predict the probe location, this would be likely to induce a more positive attentional bias. The placebo condition was identical, except for the contingency of the probe, which appeared equally behind positive and negative stimuli. We compared depression symptoms and subjective ratings of perceived negativity during fMRI between the training groups. We explored brain activation in predefined regions of interest and across the whole brain. We explored activation in areas associated with changes in attentional bias and degree of depression.

Results: Compared with the placebo group, the ABM group showed reduced activation in the amygdala and the anterior cingulate cortex when passively viewing negative images. We found no group differences in predefined regions of interest associated with emotion regulation strategies. Response in the temporal cortices was associated with the degree of change in attentional bias and the degree of depressive symptoms in ABM versus placebo.

Limitations: These findings should be replicated in other samples of patients with depression, and in studies using fMRI designs that allow analyses of within-group variability from baseline to follow-up.

Conclusion: Attentional bias modification training has an effect on brain function in the circuitry associated with emotional appraisal and the generation of affective states. identifier: NCT02931487

The Journal of Psychiatry & Neuroscience, 2019, DOI: 10.1503/jpn.180118


Published Aug. 19, 2019 7:00 AM