Alterations in working memory maintenance of fearful face distractors in depressed participants

Task-irrelevant threatening faces (e.g., fearful) are difficult to filter from visual working memory (VWM), but the difficulty in filtering non-threatening negative faces (e.g., sad) is not known. Depressive symptoms could also potentially affect the ability to filter different emotional faces. We tested the filtering of task-irrelevant sad and fearful faces by depressed and control participants performing a color-change detection task. The VWM storage of distractors was indicated by contralateral delay activity, a specific event-related potential index for the number of objects stored in VWM during the maintenance phase. The control group did not store sad face distractors, but they automatically stored fearful face distractors, suggesting that threatening faces are specifically difficult to filter from VWM in non-depressed individuals. By contrast, depressed participants showed no additional consumption of VWM resources for either the distractor condition or the non-distractor condition, possibly suggesting that neither fearful nor sad face distractors were maintained in VWM. Our control group results confirm previous findings of a threat-related filtering difficulty in the normal population while also suggesting that task-irrelevant non-threatening negative faces do not automatically load into VWM. The novel finding of the lack of negative distractors within VWM storage in participants with depressive symptoms may reflect a decreased overall responsiveness to negative facial stimuli. Future studies should investigate the mechanisms underlying distractor filtering in depressed populations.