New research shows people with severe
depression find it harder to interpret facial expressions than
healthy people – particularly expressions of disgust.
study, published in the August issue of the British Journal
of Psychiatry, was carried out by researchers from the
University of Otago in New Zealand. Researchers Katie Douglas and
Professor Richard Porter asked 68 people who had been diagnosed
with severe depression to take part in a facial expression
recognition task. They were shown a total of 96 faces displaying 5
basic emotions: angry, happy, sad, fearful and disgusted
expressions. The participants were also shown faces displaying
neutral expressions. Their performance was compared with a control
group of 50 healthy individuals.
The researchers found that the control group
were significantly better than the depression group at recognising
facial expressions of disgust, indicating an impairment in the
ability of people with severe depression to recognise disgusted
Researcher Professor Richard Porter, of the
Department of Psychological Medicine at the University of Otago,
said: “The specific impairment we found in the ability of people
with severe depression to recognise disgusted facial expressions
has not been previously reported. However, disgust recognition has
been shown to be impaired in patients with Parkinson’s disease who
are not taking medication. We know that people with Parkinson's
disease don't have enough of a brain chemical called dopamine. It’s
possible that the ability to recognise disgust is associated with
dopamine dysfunction in people with severe depression as well.
“Another explanation is that people’s
emotional processing is affected when they are severely depressed.
Admission to a psychiatric hospital is stressful, and patients are
removed from their usual social environment and placed in close
proximity with other distressed individuals.”
The researchers have called for further
research into whether people who are successfully treated for
severe depression become better at disgust recognition. If so, this
could possibly be used as a marker of treatment outcome for people
with major depression.
The study also found differences in the way
the two groups interpreted neutral faces. Those people with
depression were more likely to interpret neutral faces as sad, and
less likely to interpret neutral faces as happy compared to the
control group – findings which are consistent with previous
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Douglas GM and Porter RJ (2010) Recognition of disgusted facial expressions in severe depression, British Journal of Psychiatry, 197: 156-157