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Positive memory specificity is associated with reduced vulnerability to depression


Depression is the leading cause of disability worldwide1. Early life stress exposure increases risk for depression2 and has been proposed to sensitize the maturing psychophysiological stress system to stress in later life3. In response to stress, positive memory activation has been found to dampen cortisol responses and improve mood in humans4 and to reduce depression-like behaviour in mice5. We used path modelling to examine whether recalling specific positive memories predicts reduced vulnerability to depression (high morning cortisol6,7,8,9 and negative self-cognitions during low mood10,11,12) in adolescents at risk due to early life stress (n = 427, age 14 years)8. We found that positive memory specificity was associated with lower morning cortisol and fewer negative self-cognitions during low mood over the course of one year. Moderated mediation analyses demonstrated that positive memory specificity was related to lower depressive symptoms through fewer negative self-cognitions in response to negative life events reported in the one-year interval. These findings indicate that recalling specific positive life experiences may be a resilience factor13 that helps in lowering depressive vulnerability in adolescents with a history of early life stress.

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Data availability

The data supporting the analyses presented in this paper is available at the University of Cambridge research repository (https://doi.org/10.17863/CAM.23436) and the corresponding authors’ websites (https://www.annelauravanharmelen.com and www.adriandahlaskelund.com).

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Change history

  • 20 May 2019

    The original and corrected references are shown in the accompanying Author Correction.

    An amendment to this paper has been published and can be accessed via a link at the top of the paper


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This research was funded by the Aker Scholarship (A.D.A.), the Royal Society (A.L.v.H.; grant no. DH15017, grant no. RGF/EA/180029, grant no. RGF/R1/180064) and Wellcome Trust (S.S.; grant no. 209127/Z/17/Z). I.M.G. is funded by a Wellcome Trust Strategic Award and declares consulting to Lundbeck. The funders had no role in the study design; the collection, analysis and interpretation of data; writing the report; and the decision to submit the paper for publication. The authors thank R.A. Kievit for valuable input on the statistical analyses, and K. Ioannidis for important input on a previous version of the manuscript. Finally, the authors thank the participants for their contribution to our research.

Author information

A.D.A., I.M.G and A.L.v.H conceptualized the study. All authors contributed to the study design. A.D.A. analysed the data and drafted the paper under the supervision of A.L.v.H.; S.S. and I.M.G. provided critical revisions to the manuscript. All authors contributed to and approved the final manuscript.

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing interests.

Correspondence to Adrian Dahl Askelund or Anne-Laura van Harmelen.

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Fig. 1: Positive memory specificity is related to lower cognitive and physiological vulnerability over time.
Fig. 2: Positive memory specificity is associated with reduced depressive symptoms after life stress.