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Neurocognitive intra-individual variability in mood disorders: effects on attentional response time distributions

  • P. Gallagher (a1), J. Nilsson (a1) (a2), A. Finkelmeyer (a1), M. Goshawk (a1), K. A. Macritchie (a3), A. J. Lloyd (a1) (a4), J. M. Thompson (a1), R. J. Porter (a5), A. H. Young (a6), I. N. Ferrier (a1), R. H. McAllister-Williams (a1) (a4) and S. Watson (a1) (a4)...

Attentional impairment is a core cognitive feature of major depressive disorder (MDD) and bipolar disorder (BD). However, little is known of the characteristics of response time (RT) distributions from attentional tasks. This is crucial to furthering our understanding of the profile and extent of cognitive intra-individual variability (IIV) in mood disorders.


A computerized sustained attention task was administered to 138 healthy controls and 158 patients with a mood disorder: 86 euthymic BD, 33 depressed BD and 39 medication-free MDD patients. Measures of IIV, including individual standard deviation (iSD) and coefficient of variation (CoV), were derived for each participant. Ex-Gaussian (and Vincentile) analyses were used to characterize the RT distributions into three components: mu and sigma (mean and standard deviation of the Gaussian portion of the distribution) and tau (the ‘slow tail’ of the distribution).


Compared with healthy controls, iSD was increased significantly in all patient samples. Due to minimal changes in average RT, CoV was only increased significantly in BD depressed patients. Ex-Gaussian modelling indicated a significant increase in tau in euthymic BD [Cohen's d = 0.39, 95% confidence interval (CI) 0.09–0.69, p = 0.011], and both sigma (d = 0.57, 95% CI 0.07–1.05, p = 0.025) and tau (d = 1.14, 95% CI 0.60–1.64, p < 0.0001) in depressed BD. The mu parameter did not differ from controls.


Increased cognitive variability may be a core feature of mood disorders. This is the first demonstration of differences in attentional RT distribution parameters between MDD and BD, and BD depression and euthymia. These data highlight the utility of applying measures of IIV to characterize neurocognitive variability and the great potential for future application.

Corresponding author
* Address for correspondence: P. Gallagher, Institute of Neuroscience, Newcastle University, The Henry Wellcome Building, Framlington Place, Newcastle upon Tyne NE2 4HH, UK. (Email:
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