Working Memory Alterations After a Romantic Relationship Breakup

Anne M. Verhallen*, Remco J. Renken, Jan-Bernard C. Marsman, Gert J. ter Horst

*Corresponding author for this work

    Research output: Contribution to journalArticleAcademicpeer-review

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    Experiencing stress can have a disadvantageous effect on mental well-being. Additional to the relation between suffering from chronic stress and depression, both stress (acute and chronic) and depression are associated with cognitive alterations, including working memory. The breakup of a relationship is considered to be a stressful event that can lead to symptoms of depression in otherwise healthy people. Additional to elevated depression scores, stress-related cognitive alterations may occur in this population as well. Therefore, in the present fMRI study we investigated whether experiencing a relationship breakup is associated with working memory alterations and whether this is related to depressive symptom severity. A three workload version of the n-back task (0-back, 1-back, 2-back) was used to measure working memory in subjects who experienced a breakup in the preceding 6 months ("heartbreak group", n = 70) and subjects in a romantic relationship ("relationship group", n = 46). Behavioral task performance was compared between the two groups. Functional MRI scans were analyzed using General Linear Model (GLM) activation analyses. Workload conditions were contrasted to each other and to baseline and group differences were assessed. To investigate whether brain networks are associated with depressive symptom severity within the heartbreak group specifically, a post hoc feature-based Independent Component Analysis was performed on the 2-back > 0-back contrast images to identify brain regions that covaried across subjects. Behaviorally, the heartbreak group performed similar at high workload (i.e., 2-back) and better at moderate workload (i.e., 1-back) than the relationship group. GLM analysis revealed an interaction between group and 2-back > 0-back, 2-back > 1-back and 2-back > baseline; the heartbreak group showed less precuneus activation compared to the relationship group. Furthermore, within the heartbreak group, we found a negative association between depressive symptom severity and a brain network representing mostly the precuneus, anterior cingulate gyrus and supplementary motor cortex. Our findings suggest that the effect of a breakup is accompanied by workload-dependent working memory alterations. Therefore, we propose that this population can potentially be used to investigate the interplay between stress, cognitive functioning and depression.

    Original languageEnglish
    Article number657264
    Number of pages11
    JournalFrontiers in Behavioral Neuroscience
    Publication statusPublished - 9-Apr-2021


    • working memory
    • n-back task
    • task-based fMRI
    • depressive symptoms
    • relationship breakup

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