Brain Sciences


Recalling happy memories could prevent depression in later years

22 January 2019

Recalling positive memories and life experiences during adolescence could help ward off depression, a study by researchers at UCL and the University of Cambridge has discovered.

recalling happy memories

Depression is considered to be one of the leading burdens of disease worldwide. The condition typically has an age of onset in early to mid-adolescence - a crucial phase in which every individual experiences changes in their brain structure and chemistry. Known risk factors of depression include exposure to early life stress, such as illness, parents’ separation or death, or other family circumstances.

“With depression typically first emerging at the age of adolescence, understanding the cognitive and biological mechanisms that contribute to the development of the disease is key to the treatment of the disorder,” said Dr Susanne Schweizer, from UCL Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience, co-author of the study.

Researchers from the Department of Psychiatry at Cambridge joined forces with UCL to explore whether recalling happy memories during teenage years could help reduce the risk of depression in later years.

To test the theory, the study analysed nearly 500 young people aged 14 who were considered to be at risk of depression. They examined the effect of recalling positive memories on two signs of vulnerability to depression: negative self-related thoughts and high morning levels of the stress hormone cortisol.

They found that those adolescents at risk of depression who were exposed to negative life events were less likely to develop depression if they were able to draw on positive memories. They also reported lower levels of cortisol during a 12-month period.

“Our finding that the ability to recall positive memories when faced with adversity, speaks to the possibility that it has a buffering effect by regulating individuals’ emotional responses in negative situations,” said Dr Schweizer. That is, it appears that those adolescents who can easily draw on their positive memories to put unpleasant life experiences in perspective are less likely to suffer from low mood in the longer term.

Dr Schweizer said more research needs to be done to understand the potential of memory specificity training as it could be crucial in the prevention of depression.