Antidepressant Effects on Emotional Temperament: Toward a Biobehavioral Research Paradigm for Major Depressive Disorder


David P. Soskin, Depression Clinical and Research Program, Massachusetts General Hospital, One Bowdoin Square–6th Floor, Boston, MA 02114, USA. Tel: 617-726-8895; Fax: 617-724-3028; E-mail:


Background: Given the limited efficacy of current pharmacotherapy for major depressive disorder (MDD) and the historical decline in antidepressant development, there is increasing clinical urgency to develop more effective treatments. Objectives: To synthesize findings from clinical psychology and affective neuroscience related to the construct of emotional temperament; to examine the effects of antidepressants on the temperament dimensions of positive (PA) and negative affectivity (NA); and to propose a biobehavioral research paradigm for the treatment of MDD. Methods: We begin with an introduction to PA and NA, which emphasizes their construct development, historical context, and relevance to psychopathology. We then review studies of antidepressant effects on PA and NA, and explore two related hypotheses: (1) Cause-correction: The antidepressant response may fundamentally occur through changes in emotional temperament, with subsequent spread to syndrome or symptom changes; (2) preferential effects: Antidepressants with different mechanisms of action may have preferential effects on PA or NA. Results: Preliminary findings appear to support the cause-correction hypothesis; there is insufficient clinical evidence to support the preferential effects hypothesis. Conclusions: PA and NA are biologically based temperament dimensions, which modulate emotional, motivational, and behavioral responses to positive and negative incentives. They can be altered by antidepressants, and may independently contribute to depression improvement. In addition, the distinct biobehavioral features of PA and NA suggest that combined pharmacological and cognitive–behavioral treatments targeting these dimensions may have specific, and perhaps, synergistic antidepressant effects.