Grant funded studies (data collection completed):

        Biobehavioral Inflexibility and Risk for Juvenile Onset Depression

                Student led manuscripts in progress

        Vagal Fluctuation as a Predictor of Current and Future Depression

                Student led manuscripts in progress

Student Projects:

        Data collection in progress

        Proposal writing in progress

Past Projects


Grant funded studies


Biobehavioral Inflexibility and Risk for Juvenile Onset Depression
PI's:  Marika Kovacs and Jonathan Rottenberg

In this NIMH funded project, we are focusing on bio-behavioral inflexibility as a framework to identify risk factors for juvenile-onset depression (JOD). We are studying the relation between current and prospective JOD risk and two functionally important bio-behavioral systems: cardiac vagal control (CVC) and mood repair. Our sample (11-18 years old at entry) includes 200 probands with JOD, 200 of their at-risk siblings not yet affected by JOD, and 100 never-ill controls. Probands (and siblings) will be recruited from a carefully diagnosed and well-characterized sample of 700+ young patients with JOD (each with at least one sibling), representing a national, clinical sample in Hungary.


Rottenberg, J., Yaroslavsky, I., Carney R. M., Freedland, K.E., George, C.J., Baji, I., Dochnal, R, Gádoros, J., Halas, K., Kapornai, K., Kiss, E., Osváth, V., Varga, J., Vetró, A., Kovacs, M. (2014). The association between major depressive disorder in childhood and risk factors for cardiovascular disorder in adolescence. Psychosomatic Medicine, 76122-127.


Manuscripts in progress:


Positive Autobiographical Memory Deficits Among Youth with Depression History and Their Never Depressed Siblings

Student authors: Ena Begovic, Vanessa Panaite - submitted to review

Depressed and depression-vulnerable individuals often display deficits in the recall of positive autobiographical memories (PAMs). However, the exact nature and significance of PAM deficits remains unclear from commonly used memory elicitation paradigms (i.e., AMT, Williams & Broadbent, 1986). The current study employed a more robust memory elicitation procedure and assessed a broad range of memory characteristics, including:  specificity, word count, coherence, detail, number of valance adjectives, overall memory valence, and retrieval difficulty. We examined how depression status (currently and formerly depressed, high-risk for depression, and never depressed) impacted memory characteristics, as well as how PAM deficits were related to clinical characteristics and mood regulation. Results indicate that PAM deficits are a robust phenomenon and reflect both trait and state features of depression, with limited evidence of a vulnerability marker for depression. PAM deficits were not associated with clinical characteristics, and only modestly predicted change in mood. 


Behavioral (in)flexibility at two temporal dimensions in depressed probands and at risk siblings.
Student author: Vanessa Panaite
, Kim O'Leary
Healthy development requires flexible and dynamic adaptation to environmental challenges. Appropriate flexibility in emotional responding is predictive of good mental health (Kashdan & Rottenberg, 2009) and reduced flexibility has been associated with depression (Kuppens, Sheeber, Yap, et al., 2012).  In fact, depression is often conceptualized as a disorder marked by behavioral inflexibility which focuses on depressed individuals’ inability to modify their behavior to meet the changing demands of the environment, and their tendency to respond in stereotypic and usually maladaptive ways. In the current study we take a special interest in dismantling behavioral flexibility by investigating it within and across emotional contexts. Our sample also allowed for an investigation of flexibility as it relates to depression state, trait and risk by including currently and previously depressed children, their at risk siblings and healthy peers. Preliminary results provide initial evidence that youth with a history of depression exhibit less dynamic happiness behavior outside of episodes of depression.


Vagal Fluctuation as a Predictor of Current and Future Depression
PI's:  Jonathan Rottenberg and Kristen Salomon

Cardiac vagal control is a biological parameter linked to self-regulation (e.g., Porges, 1995) that has attracted considerable attention as a possible etiological marker for several forms of psychopathology, including depression. A growing literature demonstrates that high resting vagal control and context-appropriate vagal fluctuation are associated with behavioral flexibility and adaptability, and, in turn, that low resting vagal control and a lack of context-appropriate vagal fluctuation are associated with poor self-regulation and several forms of psychiatric impairment. In collaboration with Dr. Kristen Salomon, we investigated abnormalities in vagal fluctuation as a liability marker for depression. Towards this goal, we assessed clinical and psychophysiological functioning in individuals with current major depression, past major depression, and healthy individuals, to examine whether depression vulnerability is associated with deficient vagal fluctuation and whether preserved vagal fluctuation predicts recovery from depression.


Bylsma, L. M., Salomon, K., Taylor-Clift, A., Morris, B. H., & Rottenberg, J. (2014). Blunted respiratory sinus arrhythmia reactivity in major depressive disorder marks the depressed state. Psychosomatic Medicine, 76,66-73.

Salomon, K., White, K.E., Bylsma, L.M., Panaite, V., & Rottenberg, J. (2013). Is blunted cardiovascular reactivity in depression mood-state dependent? A comparison of major depressive disorder, remitted depression and healthy controls. International Journal of Psychophysiology, 90, 50-57.


Manuscripts in progress: 


Respiratory sinus arrhythmia reactivity predicts depression symptom improvement over 30 weeks

Student authors: Vanessa Panaite, Alexandra Cowden Hindash 

Respiratory sinus arrhythmia (RSA) reactivity, an index of cardiac vagal tone, has been linked to depression state and course. Longitudinally, RSA withdrawal during a sad film (but not happy or fear) predicted increased likelihood to recover from depression among people who were initially depressed. The current investigation focused on clarifying whether reduced RSA reactivity to a variety of emotional contexts is associated with symptomatic improvement. Depressed persons who exhibited robust RSA reactivity to a sad and happy film were more likely to show overall symptom improvement, while reactivity to a fear film and speech predicted faster recovery and maintenance of recovery over the course of 30 weeks. Surprisingly, those individuals whose RSA withdrew the most in response to the fear film and speech task exhibited a similar symptom trajectory as those with low RSA reactivity--slower symptom recovery followed by a subsequent return to high symptom levels--indicative of a nonlinear pattern of inflexibility. The current analyses generally support the idea that ECI is predictive of a worse course of depression, but that RSA reactivity to a more robust emotional challenge may uncover a more complex relationship between RSA reactivity and MDD symptom trajectory.


Emotion regulation difficulties mediate the link between poor sleep quality and depression symptoms
Student authors: Kim O'Leary, Lauren Bylsma (Lab Alumnus)
Disordered sleep is strongly linked to depression, but the pathways whereby disordered sleep results in depression are not well understood. The current study tests the idea that poor sleep may impair emotion regulation quality, which in turn may lead to depressive symptoms in currently depressed, remitted, and healthy individuals. Results suggest that several indices of emotion regulation mediate this relationship in both cross-sectional and longitudinal models. Implications include critical understanding of the process by which sleep problems lead to depression. 



Student Projects


Data collection in progress:


Does emotional processing mediate the link between disordered sleep and depression? 

Master’s Thesis (proposal defended 8/21/14)

PI: Kimberly O’Leary

The main purpose of this study is to assess whether the emotional processing system is a mediating factor in the relationship between disordered sleep and depression. The first aim is to assess the potential of impairment in the emotional processing system as a mediator for the relationship between disordered sleep and depression. The second aim is to explore the various subscales of the Pittsburgh Sleep Quality Index (PSQI); the various components of sleep as a biological imperative may differentially affect various processing systems.


Automatic interpretation biases and the self-relevance of ambiguous information

PI: Alexandra Cowden Hindash

This study is meant to examine if it is necessary for information to be self-relevant to illicit both automatic and elaborative depressive thinking patterns and emotional reactivity. We will look specifically at interpretation biases in response to ambiguous information and whether persons with depressive symptoms are more likely and faster to ascribe negative meaning to ambiguous information than persons without depressive symptoms. We will also examine how interpretation is associated with emotional reactivity to a stressful task. This research may increase our understanding of depressive thinking and how it is associated with emotional reactivity to stressful events.


A cross-methodological investigation of emotional reactivity in major depression

Doctoral Dissertation (proposal defended 8/21/13)

PI: Vanessa Panaite

Major depressive disorder (MDD) is primarily characterized by prevalent sadness and anhedonia. Despite the centrality of affective dysfunction to depression, we continue to have an incomplete understanding of how depression influences emotional functioning. Laboratory studies find that depression is characterized by reduced reactivity across emotional contexts, while a few studies using naturalistic designs find that depressed people show normative reactivity to negative life events and mood brightening in response to positive events. The current study proposes a multi-context investigation of emotional reactivity in depression through a combination and augmentation of experimental and naturalistic designs, which will allow for an investigation of emotional functioning across contexts and between structured stimuli and unstructured life events. This will be a first effort to utilize the strengths of both laboratory and naturalistic methods to identify and clarify sources of lab-life discrepancies in the examination of emotional functioning in depression.


Examining emotional reactivity to daily events in major and minor depression

Master’s thesis (completed)

PI: Lauren Bylsma

Laboratory studies suggest that MDD is characterized by blunted positive and negative emotional reactivity; however little is known regarding how less severe forms of depression may relate to emotional reactivity.  Furthermore, very few studies have examined mood disordered persons’ emotional reactivity in naturalistic settings.  To address these gaps in the literature, the current study utilized two naturalistic sampling methods (the Day Reconstruction Method and the Experience Sampling Method) to examine positive (PER) and negative emotional reactivity (NER) to daily life events in 35 individuals currently experiencing a major depressive episode, 26 individuals currently experiencing a minor depressive episode, and 38 healthy controls.  Similar to the findings of laboratory studies, individuals with both major and minor depression showed blunted reactivity to positive events relative to controls.  In contrast to laboratory studies, individuals with major and minor depression showed increased reactivity to negative events relative to controls.  Findings suggest that NER in mood disorders may diverge as a function of the assessment context.  Implications are discussed.


Bylsma, L.M.*, Clift, A.*, & Rottenberg, J. (2011).  Emotional reactivity to daily events in major and minor depression.  Journal of Abnormal Psychology, 120, 155-167.


Additional manuscripts in progress: 


Poorer sleep quality affects daily life emotional reactivity in depression

Student authors: Kimberly O’Leary, Vanessa Panaite - submitted to review

We examined whether sleep quality influences emotional reactivity to everyday life events and if this relationship is altered by the presence of mood disorders. Unlike healthy controls, mood-disordered persons, individuals who had worse sleep efficiency and greater sleep disturbances reported higher negative reactivity across event types. Healthy controls with worse sleep showed increased negative emotional reactivity only in response to an unpleasant event. 



Encoding style of positive autobiographical memories: Relationship to memory recall characteristics, mood repair, and depression

Master’s Thesis (proposal defended 11/19/14)

PI: Ena Begovic

Positive autobiographical memories (PAMs) play a particularly important role in emotional functioning (Conway, 2004; Bluck & Alea, 2002). Whereas healthy individuals consciously recall PAMs in response to sad affect (Josephson et al., 1996) and derive emotional benefits from doing so (as indexed by a reduction in sad affect), dysphoric and depressed individuals are unable to reap similar emotional benefits by recalling PAMs (Joormann et al., 2004, 2007).  Furthermore, depressed individuals exbihit deficits in several memory charactertics when recalling PAMs (e.g.,Werner-Seidler & Moulds, 2011; Williams et al., 2007). In the current study, I examine how the variables at the encoding stage of PAMs impact retrieval and emotion regulation.


Proposal writing in progress:

Does emotional reactivity mediate the relationship between attention and interpretation biases in depression?  

Doctoral Dissertation

PI: Alexandra Cowden Hindash

Cognitive models of depression assert that an underlying negative mood triggers biases in information processing. When cognitive biases are tested simultaneously, the association between difficulty disengaging attention from negative stimuli and negative memory biases is mediated by elaborative interpretative processing of negative stimuli (Everaert, et al 2013; Everaert, 2014). Some have argued that this interconnection is because of deficiencies in cognitive control (De Lissnyder, et al., 2012), however cognitive theories assume that information processing biases are triggered by the emotional saliency of environmental information such that mood congruent information is given processing priority. Therefore emotional saliency should mediate the connection between cognitive biases, but has not been tested directly.


Past Projects