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Neural basis of the emotional Stroop interference effect in major depression

  • M. T. Mitterschiffthaler (a1), S. C. R. Williams (a1), N. D. Walsh (a2), A. J. Cleare (a1), C. Donaldson (a1), J. Scott (a1) (a3) and C. H. Y. Fu (a1)
  • DOI:
  • Published online: 01 September 2007

A mood-congruent sensitivity towards negative stimuli has been associated with development and maintenance of major depressive disorder (MDD). The emotional Stroop task assesses interference effects arising from the conflict of emotional expressions consistent with disorder-specific self-schemata and cognitive colour-naming instructions. Functional neuroimaging studies of the emotional Stroop effect advocate a critical involvement of the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC) during these processes.


Subjects were 17 medication-free individuals with unipolar MDD in an acute depressive episode (mean age 39 years), and 17 age-, gender- and IQ-matched healthy volunteers. In an emotional Stroop task, sad and neutral words were presented in various colours, and subjects were required to name the colour of words whilst undergoing functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI). Overt verbal responses were acquired with a clustered fMRI acquisition sequence.


Individuals with depression showed greater increases in response time from neutral to sad words relative to controls. fMRI data showed a significant engagement of left rostral ACC (BA 32) and right precuneus during sad words in patients relative to controls. Additionally, rostral ACC activation was positively correlated with latencies of negative words in MDD patients. Healthy controls did not have any regions of increased activation compared to MDD patients.


These findings provide evidence for a behavioural and neural emotional Stroop effect in MDD and highlight the importance of the ACC during monitoring of conflicting cognitive processes and mood-congruent processing in depression.

Corresponding author
*Address for correspondence: M. Mitterschiffthaler, Ph.D., Neuroimaging Research Group, Clinical Neuroscience, PO Box 89; Institute of Psychiatry, De Crespigny Park, LondonSE5 8AF, UK. (Email:
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