Examining autobiographical memory in mental disorders

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Many psychopathological disorders show disturbances of autobiographical memory, which may be partly responsible for the development and maintenance of the symptoms. One common denominator across a number of disorders appears to be negative self-bias, rumination and intrusive thoughts and memories. Research on autobiographical memory therefore has great potentials for providing new insights regarding underlying factors and possible treatment methods for such disturbances. Here we examine autobiographical memory in relation to three prominent psychopathological disorders: Posttraumatic Stress Disorder, depression, and Borderline Personality Disorder.

PTSD (PTSD) is an important mental disorder, which may follow exposure to life threatening and fearful events. It has an estimated life time prevalence of 5% for men and 10% for women in a Western sample. It is often described as a disturbance of autobiographical memory because a key symptom is involuntary intrusive memories of the traumatic scene. Although such intrusive memories are observed in a range of emotional disorders, they appear to be more pronounced in PTSD than in other disorders. We pursue this issue in a series of studies examining involuntary, intrusive memories of emotional scenes in veterans and other individuals with traumatic events in their past.

Depression is a highly common emotional disorder with an estimated life time prevalence of 20% in a Western population. Depression not only affects how people feel, also a range of cognitive abilities are severely affected by depression. In relation to autobiographical memory, depressed individuals have difficulties with accessing memories of specific events.  This finding is especially important because reduced memory specificity has been shown to be associated with the maintenance of depressive symptoms across extended periods. Our earlier findings suggest that involuntary memories might be a way to break away from the overgeneral remembering. We are conducting a series of studies in order to examine characteristics of involuntary memories depressed (or dysphoric) versus non-depressed individuals.

Individuals with Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD) often experience problems with maintaining a stable sense of identity. This is particularly relevant for autobiographical memory researchers, because the ability to remember our personal past is essential for providing a sense of identity and continuity in life. However, surprisingly little is known about the possible relation between identity disturbances as observed in BPD and autobiographical memory. We are undertaking a series of studies to address this issue.