Cognitive impairment and executive dysfunction are characteristics of depression. People who are depressed have difficulty thinking clearly, making decisions, and remembering things. Elevated levels of dysfunction can put someone at increased risk for suicidal ideation or behavior. But until recently, few studies have delved into the differences between suicide attempters’ and non-attempters’ cognitive and psychological functioning to see if they can give clinicians a clue as to which depressed clients might be most at risk for future suicide attempts.
John G. Keilp of the Department of Molecular Imaging and Neuropathology at New York State Psychiatric Institute explored these factors in a new study. Using a sample of 80 depressed participants with no attempt history, 72 with suicide attempt histories, and 56 with neither suicidal history of depression, Keilp conducted an extensive series of cognitive and executive functioning tests. He found that there were unique differences between the groups of participants. “All of the depressed subjects performed worse than healthy volunteers on motor, psychomotor, and language fluency tasks,” said Keilp. The depressed suicide attempters had poorer scores on the memory and attention tasks when compared to the depressed non-attempters. But there was no difference between the depressed groups on the remaining executive functions tested, including impulse control and abstract learning. Among the attempters, those who did so through extremely violent means had the lowest scores on most of the executive function tests.
Keilp believes that perhaps the deficits in working memory found in attempters were the result of slower cognitive processing and not limited memory capacity. In support of this theory, he did find that all of the depressed participants had lower psychomotor processing speeds and delayed reactions. Future work should address this outcome and test this theory further. Until then, Keilp hopes these findings highlight the importance of examining all cognitive, psychological and executive functioning risk factors in clients with depression, especially those with a history of prior suicide attempts.
J, G. Keilp, et al. Neuropsychological function and suicidal behavior: Attention control, memory and executive dysfunction in suicide attempt. Psychological Medicine 43.3 (2013): 539-51. ProQuest Research Library. Web. 3 Feb. 2013.
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