Attentional Bias Modification Prevents Depression

Attentional Bias ModificationA middle-aged nurse wrestling with depression said she want to do “everything” that she possibly could to improve her mood. She doesn’t have access to therapy through her insurance, and she’s already vigorously pursuing mindfulness practice, but her request reminded me of an article I recently read on Attentional Bias Modification as both a possible treatment of depression and as a way of preventing future episodes.

The authors of the article note that:

“Depressed patients tend to pay attention to, interpret, and remember information in a negative manner. Importantly, however, these negative cognitive biases are found not only in currently depressed patients but are also present in nondepressed individuals who are at high risk of developing depression.”

We published a post a few months ago about this phenomenon based on personal experience. It was the story of two bike rides on the exact same road but ridden in different states of mind. The point is that mood changes the reality that we experience because a depressed mood, or perhaps even a negative frame of mind that could lead to depression, makes us focus on tragedy and sources of sadness.

Attentional Bias Modification is a form of treatment that builds on these observation. The notion is that by practicing attending to happiness, I recognizing that the tendency to focus on the negative can lead to depression, and deliberately seeking out positive stimuli in the environment, we may be able to treat and/or prevent depression.

The article that I referenced at the end of this post is a study of 61 patients at high risk of recurrent depression which showed that ABM training significantly reduce residual depressive symptoms and the elevated cortisol levels together are among the best predictors of depression relapse.

The research is compelling but the task seems ridiculously simple. A program or application that measures how quickly you are able to identify smiling faces in a group of non-smiling images. You’re instructed to reduce the amount of time it takes you to find smiling faces and thus you are encouraged to look for those faces.

It’s hard to believe that this task can affect your experience of the rest of your world but the evidence suggests that it does.

While my nurse with depression was with me I went online and did a search to see if there was an app or website that would allow her to pursue the training on her own. I ran across an app that is available for both the iPhone and Android: Anxiety Mint. A very curious name indeed but the app is actually pretty easy to use and looks like it would be fun.


Browning M, Holmes EA, Charles M, Cowen PJ, Harmer CJ. Using attentional bias modification as a cognitive vaccine against depression. Biol Psychiatry. 2012 Oct 1;72(7):572-9. doi: 10.1016/j.biopsych.2012.04.014.