A computer-based task designed to shift one’s attention from sad to positive word associations may help to reduce symptoms in adolescents with major depressive disorder (MDD).

Wenhui Yang, PhD, Hunan Normal University, China, and colleagues used a computer-based task known as attention bias modification, which is intended to shift one’s attention away from negative stimuli. Forty-five adolescents were selected from a school. The team hypothesized that those who received ABM training would see greater reductions in depressive symptoms than those in the control group, who received a placebo training.

Statistics show that 11% of US adolescents have MDD, and as a result, are five times more likely to attempt suicide than peers without mental illness.

In the study, participants in the ABM group participated in eight session last 22 minutes each over two weeks. The purpose of the session was to alter their attention from sad to neutral words.  Nine weeks later, the did another four sessions, this time 30 minutes each, where they were asked to shift their attention from neutral to positive words.

On the placebo side, subjects had the same tasks, though their attention shifted to neutral and equally often.

Greater reduction in attention bias score and depressive symptoms were found in the ABM group than the placebo group after the first two weeks of training, the researchers reported in the Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry. In addition, many more participants in the ABM group no longer meet diagnostic criteria for MDD compared to the control group.

Even more encouraging, ABM participants demonstrated even greater reductions in depressive and anxious feeling after a year.


Yang W, et al. Attention Bias Modification Treatment for Adolescents With Major Depression: A Randomized Controlled Trial. J Am Acad Child Adolesc Psychiatry. 2016; 55(3):208–218.e2.