New research published in Biological Psychiatry: Cognitive Neuroscience and Neuroimaging shows that people with major depressive disorder (MDD) experience more negative emotions when recalling difficult memories than individuals without the disorder. Furthermore, this study “Negative autobiographical memory in depression reflects elevated amygdala-hippocampal reactivity and hippocampally-associated emotion regulation” says these individuals with MDD were able to control these negative emotions as effectively as people without MDD; however, they used different brain circuits to do so.

Cameron Carter, MD, Editor of Biological Psychiatry: Cognitive Neuroscience and Neuroimaging explains the significance of these findings: “This study provides new insights into the changes in brain function that are present in major depression. It shows differences in how memory systems are engaged during emotion processing in depression and how people with the disorder must regulate these systems in order to manage their emotions.”

To reach these findings, a group of researchers—led by Kevin Ochsner, PhD, of Columbia University—studied 29 men and women with MDD and 23 men and women without the disorder. The participants recalled negative or painful memories, while the team measured activity in different areas of the brain including the amygdala (involved with emotional processing) and the hippocampus (important for memory recall).

Those with MDD reported higher levels of negative emotions upon recalling negative memories, as compared to the 23 others; however, they were able to dial these increased negative emotions back to normal levels “as a distant observer.” Lead author Bruce Dore, PhD, of University of Pennsylvania, explains this technique: “When they were using this strategy, people with MDD showed a pattern of brain activity that was comparable to what was shown by the healthy controls, with one key difference—greater dampening of a region of posterior hippocampus that has been associated with recalling specific memory details.”

In sum, this suggests that painful memories may have a stronger effect on people with MDD, but their brains work to regulate their emotions by avoiding specific details of the experience. According to Dr. Dore, this is supported by other research, which says people with MDD can regulate their emotions upon instruction—just in an unlikely way, “such as being more likely to use problematic strategies like distraction and rumination in daily life.”

Furthermore, Dr. Dore says that people living with MDD may benefit from training that centers around effective strategies for identifying, processing, and regulating emotions. This would not only normalize the brain differences that were found in this study, according to Dr. Dore, but help these individuals to manage the increased level of negative emotions they experience.

Elsevier (2018, March 7). Depressed People Have Stronger Emotional Responses to Negative Memories. NeuroscienceNews. Retrieved March 7, 2018 from

Dore, B. P., Rodrik, O., Boccagno, C., Hubbard, A., Et al. (2018, January 11). Negative autobiographical memory in depression reflects elevated amygdala-hippocampal reactivity and hippocampally-associated emotion regulation. Biological Psychiatry: Cognitive Neuroscience and Neuroimaging. Retrieved on March 12, 2018 from