Attention bias modification treatment in depressed adolescents


Depression is the most prevalent mental health disorder among teens and adults in the U.S. In 2014, an estimated 2.8 million adolescents aged 12 to 17 in the U.S. had at least one major depressive episode in the past year, translating into 11.4 percent of the U.S. population aged 12 to 17. Amid such an overwhelming scenario, a newly emerging treatment tool is proving to be instrumental for anxiety disorders, and lately for treatment of depression in adolescents. This is Attention Bias Modification Treatment (ABMT).

Depression in adolescents

Even though 80 percent of depressed adolescents have successful chances of treatment, less than 33 percent receive the help they need.

This is particularly concerning because:

  • 30 percent of depressed teens also develop a substance abuse problem.
  • Depressed adolescents face more chances of coming across trouble at school and work, indulging in unsafe sexual behaviors, getting physical sicknesses and struggling with relationships.
  • Untreated depression is the third-leading cause of death among teenagers. Battling depression can make a teenager almost 12 times more susceptible to attempting suicide.

What is attention bias modification treatment?

The attention system in anxious individuals is partial toward threat. ABMT stems from the concept of cognitive predispositions resulting in pathological anxiety, focusing its therapeutic action upon this specific bias in attention, expanding upon threat-based attention bias in anxiety. ABM is particularly designed to reallocate attention away from probable dangers.

The study

A new study, to appear in the Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry (JAACAP), illustrates the efficacy of ABMT for depressed adolescents. It depicts how the performance of a computerized exercise specifically designed to elicit positive responses shows a declining trend in negative attention biases and depressive symptoms among adolescents with major depression.

Dr. Wenhui Yang of Hunan Normal University, alongside other researchers, examined the immediate and long-term effects of Attention Bias Modification tasks in 45 adolescents with Major Depressive Disorder. This group of adolescents was elected from a school population. The authors set to prove the hypothesis that adolescents engaged in active ABM training were likely to describe greater reductions in depressive symptoms when compared with adolescent controls.

Adults and adolescents with depression often demonstrate partial attention to negative stimuli related to sadness and no biases toward positive motivation. ABM treatment constitutes exposures of participants to pairs of words that vary in emotional valence for a short period, followed by a search that is more frequently presented in the location of the neutral stimuli than the negative ones.

Based on a two-stage system, adolescents in the active ABM group first completed eight 22-minute sessions, stretched over a period of two weeks, to shift their attention from sad to neutral words. After nine weeks, the participants completed four more sessions, each with a 30-minute duration, to shift their attention from neutral to positive words, extended over two weeks.

The findings from the study support the authors’ hypothesis of ABM proving to be a potential treatment instrument for mild-to-moderate adolescent depression. Because most adult depressive tendencies typically initiate during adolescence, preparation for adolescents with depression may exert extensive influence across their lifetime.

White River Academy is a therapeutic boarding school for adolescent males dealing with addiction and mental health disorders. Mental health issues continue to impact students. We are at the forefront of treating and destigmatizing these disorders to reach out to students and adolescents in need. If you or a loved one is struggling to accomplish your true potential, contact us right away.

About the author

Sana Ahmed is a  journalist and social media savvy content developer with extensive research, print and on-air interview skills, Sana has previously worked as an editor for a business magazine and been an on-air news broadcaster. She writes to share the amazing developments from the mental health world and unsuccessfully attempts to diagnose her friends and family.   

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