Objective: Depressive pseudodementia (DPD) is a clinical condition characterized by depressive symptoms followed by cognitive and func-
tional impairment characteristics of dementia. Memory complaints are one of the most related cognitive symptoms in DPD. The present study
aims to assess the verbal learning proﬁle of elderly patients with DPD. Methods: Ninety-six older adults (34 DPD and 62 controls) were asses-
sed by neuropsychological tests including the Rey auditory-verbal learning test (RAVLT). A multivariate general linear model was used to assess
group differences and controlled for demographic factors. Results: Moderate or large effects were found on all RAVLT components, except for
short-term and recognition memory. Conclusion: DPD impairs verbal memory, with large effect size on free recall and moderate effect size on
the learning. Short-term storage and recognition memory are useful in clinical contexts when the differential diagnosis is required.
Key words: dementia, Alzheimer’s disease, mood disorders, unipolar, memory.
Objetivo: A pseudodemência depressiva (PDD) é uma condição clínica onde sintomas depressivos são acompanhados por comprometi-
mento cognitivo e funcional característicos da demência. Queixas de memória são um dos sintomas mais comumente relatados na PDD.
O presente estudo almeja investigar a aprendizagem verbal de pacientes idosos com PDD. Método: 96 idosos (34 PDD e 62 controles)
realizaram testes neuropsicológicos incluindo o Teste de Aprendizagem Auditivo-Verbal de Rey (RAVLT). Adotou-se um modelo linear geral
multivariado para comparação dos grupos controlando variáveis sociodemográﬁcas. Resultados: Pacientes com PDD apresentaram déﬁ-
cits em todo o RAVLT, com exceção no armazenamento de curto-prazo e reconhecimento, com tamanhos de efeito moderados ou altos.
Conclusão: A PDD compromete a memória verbal mais intensamente na evocação livre e de forma moderada na aprendizagem. A memória
de curto-prazo e de reconhecimento são úteis em contextos onde o diagnóstico diferencial é necessário.
Palavras-Chave: demência, doença de Alzheimer, transtornos de humor, unipolar, memória.
Verbal learning on depressive
impairment of free recall, moderate
on learning processes, and spared
short-term and recognition memory
Aprendizagem verbal na pseudodemência depressiva:
comprometimento acentuado da evocação livre, moderado nos processos
de aprendizagem e preservação da memória de curto prazo e reconhecimento
Jonas Jardim de Paula1,2, Débora Marques Miranda2, Rodrigo Nicolato3, Edgar Nunes de Moraes4,
Maria Aparecida Camargos Bicalho4, Leandro Fernandes Malloy-Diniz1,2,3
Instituto Nacional de Ciência e Tecnologia de Medicina Molecular, Medical School, Universidade Federal de Minas Gerais (UFMG), Belo Horizonte MG, Brazil.
1Laboratory of Neuropsychological Investigations (LIN), UFMG, Belo Horizonte MG, Brazil;
2Instituto Nacional de Ciência e Tecnologia de Medicina Molecular, Medical School, UFMG, Belo Horizonte MG, Brazil;
3Mental Health Department, Medical School, UFMG, Belo Horizonte MG, Brazil;
4Internal Medicine Department, Medical School, UFMG, Belo Horizonte MG, Brazil.
Correspondence: Jonas Jardim de Paula; Avenida Alfredo Balena 190; 30130-100 Belo Horizonte MG - Brasil; E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
Conﬂict of Interest: There is no conﬂict of interest to declare.
Received 9 October 2012; Received in ﬁnal form 9 April 2013; Accepted 16 April 2013.
Depression is one of the most frequent causes of emo-
tional disturbances and cognitive impairment and course
with an important loss of quality of life1. Depressive symptoms
are usually more frequent in elderly subjects than in younger
adults but also more dicult to detect1. Depressive symp-
toms are associated with cognitive decits, especially in
Jonas Jardim de Paula et al. Depressive pseudodementia: memory 597
of cognitive impairment (such as mild cognitive impairment
due to neurodegenerative conditions, vascular cognitive
impairment, and dementia). e diagnosis of DPD was
performed when all protocols were lled. A control group
was composed of 62 (66% women) healthy older adults also
assessed. A brief neuropsychological protocol validated for
Brazilian elders8, with the exception of the Corsi Blocks Test,
was used in all sample assessments, which includes tests of
executive functions language, constructive praxis, and work-
ing memory. e project was approved by the Local Ethical
Board (COEP-334/06), and all participants gave written con-
sent for participation.
Verbal learning assessment
The Rey auditory-verbal learning test (RAVLT)9 was
used for the memory assessment, adapted and validated
version and with appropriated normative data for Brazil-
ian elders. The test has five learning trials of a 15-word list
(A1–A5), followed by a distractor list (B1), an immediate
recall (IR), a delayed recall (DR), and a recognition trial
(Rec), representing different aspects of verbal learning.
A recent study of validity for the Brazilian elderly popu-
lation10 suggests that in normal elderly two main cogni-
tive processes are assessed by the RAVLT, one related to
information encoding and storage (comprising the first
four learning trials) and the other related to information
search and retrieving (comprising the free recalls and
recognition), with the A5 component as an intermediate
process. We used the version proposed by Malloy-Diniz
et al.9, where the words used in the learning and recogni-
tion trials were chosen based on their frequency in Brazil-
e sociodemographic variables were compared by
independent sample t tests and χ2 tests. ese results indi-
cate dierences in age (t=2.30, p=0.024, d=0.49) and edu-
cation (t=2.10, p=0.033, d=0.45), but not gender (χ²=0.02,
p=0.880). e groups, as expected, also diered on the Short
Version of the Geriatric Depression Scale (GDS-15) score
(t=17.05, p<0.001, d=3.4). Since dierences were found on
demographic data, a multivariate general linear model was
adopted for group comparisons. e cognitive tests were
entered as dependent variables, gender and group as factors,
and age and education as covariates. Signicance levels were
established at 0.05.
Main effects for group were found on almost all the
RAVLT components, except for A1 and Rec (p>0.05) (Table
and Figure). The effect sizes were moderate for the learn-
ing components of the RAVLT (A2–A4, RAVLT-Total) and
late-onset depression2, usually associated with slow process-
ing speed, memory impairment, and executive dysfunction1-3.
e mechanism by which depression mediates the cognitive
impairment is still controversial, but certainly is multidimen-
sional and involves brain structural changes, monoaminer-
gic neurotransmission, and chronic inammatory processes
resulting in an abnormal behavior3. In some cases, the mag-
nitude of the cognitive impairment secondary to depression
may simulate the pattern expected in demented patients; a
condition referred to as depressive pseudodementia (DPD)4.
The diagnostic criteria of pseudodementia4 consist
in the presence of intellectual (cognitive) impairment
without a primary neurological or other psychiatric dis-
order other than depression that could explain the pres-
entation and presence of reversible or partially reversible
deficits. The pseudodementia diagnosis is still adopted
in mental health services, although some criticism has
been elicited5, especially on the reversibility of the cogni-
tive impairment6. Cognitive deficits in major depressive
disorder may persist after treatment, particularly those
related to episodic memory and executive functions but
may become less intense3.
Memory complaints are one of the most related cog-
nitive symptoms in clinical assessment and are neces-
sary for the diagnosis of dementia according to DSM-IV
criteria. One of the most widely used paradigms for epi-
sodic memory assessment is the auditory-verbal learn-
ing after successive presentations of a list of a certain
number of substantives. This procedure is very sensitive
for the detection of memory impairments in dementia,
mild cognitive impairment, and other neuropsychiatric
disorders7. The present study investigates the pattern of
memory impairment in pseudodementia using a verbal-
For this study, 96 elderly were evaluated in a Reference
Center for older adults in Belo Horizonte, Brazil. e Insti-
tuto Jenny e Andrade Faria de Atenção ao Idoso is a second-
ary/tertiary public health unity of this city specialized in
health the aged population. Assessment procedures are per-
formed by a multidisciplinary sta. Diagnosis was consen-
sual by at least one geriatrician and one clinical neuropsy-
chologist. e DPD group (n=34, 23 women) was composed
of patients refereed to neuropsychology for evaluation of
cognitive performance, since they have a diagnosis of major
depressive disorder. ese referred patients have specic
impairment on cognitive screening tests but spared global
cognitive functioning and presented subjective cognitive
and functional complaints. After neuropsychological assess-
ment, results were discussed for exclusion of other causes
598 Arq Neuropsiquiatr
Table.Participants description, cognitive assessment and verbal-learning analysis.
Sociodemographic and cognitive
Controls DPD Group Corrected model
M SD M SD F η² F η²
Age 73.94 7.84 70.21 7.1 2 – – – –
Education 5.89 4.38 4.00 3.89 – – – –
GDS-15 1.81 1.30 8.94 2.80 – – – –
MMSE 27.34 2.96 22.85 3.62 19.98** 0 .1 9 14.95** 0.46
CDT 4.10 1.1 8 2.47 2.18 18.17** 0 .1 7 10.91** 0.39
DS 38.74 19.22 25.47 11.75 9.73* 0 .1 0 5.54** 0.24
CFT 13.15 3.78 9.79 3.27 9.81* 0 .1 0 9.93** 0.37
TT 31.63 3.22 29.47 3.36 3.45 – 4.76** 0.22
RAVLT-A1 4.92 1.83 4.00 1.4 4 2.69 – 6.40** 0.27
RAVLT-A2 7. 0 6 2.19 5.21 1.7 2 8.90* 0.09 8.70** 0.34
RAVLT-A3 8.44 2.45 6.09 2.19 8.34* 0.09 5.53** 0.24
RAVLT-A4 9.42 2.60 6.82 2.38 10.06* 0 .1 0 7.90** 0.31
RAVLT-A5 9.98 2.80 7. 0 3 2.44 10.67* 0 .1 1 8.74** 0.34
RAVLT-B1 4.06 1.64 2.82 1.64 5.04* 0.06 8.88** 0.34
RAVLT-IR 8.26 2.57 4.65 2.90 22.98** 0.21 9.48** 0.36
RAVLT-DR 8.24 2.82 4.47 2.96 27.17** 0.24 9.91** 0.37
RAVLT-Rec 8.90 4.30 7.1 3 3.13 1.38 – 6.85** 0.28
RAVLT–Total 38.32 11.89 29.15 9.18 7.05* 0.08 7.32** 0.30
*Signiﬁcant at 0.05, **signiﬁcant at 0.001.
SD: standard deviation; MED: median; DPD: depressive pseudodementia; GDS-15: short version geriatric depression scale; MMSE: mini-mental state
exam; CDT: clock drawing test; DS: digit span; CFT: category ﬂuency test; RAVLT: Rey auditory-verbal learning test; IR: immediate recall; DR: delayed recall,
Fig 1.Comparison of the verbal learning proﬁle on the
Rey auditory-verbal learning test of normal controls and
depressive pseudodementia patients.
Memory impairment is a common symptom related to
depressed older adults and is usually associated with depres-
sion severity1,3. e pattern of verbal memory impairment
found in this study indicates decits on learning (moderate)
and recall (severe), with spared recognition. is pattern was
also reported by other studies using list-learning tests2,11,12.
is memory prole is expected due to the neurobiology of
depression. According to a recent review3, depression impairs
most prominently the prefrontal cortex and the mesial tem-
poral lobe regions (particularly the amygdala and the hip-
pocampus). Verbal learning is particularly associated with
an intricate circuitry involving the amygdala and its con-
nections with frontal and temporal structures, such as the
bilateral anterior cingulate cortex, bilateral medial temporal
gyrus, and the left prefrontal cortex; regions also related to
Posterior cortical regions are usually preserved in depres-
sion. Studies of functional neuroimage suggest that in verbal
learning tasks, such as the RAVLT, learning and recall process
are more dependent of the mesial temporal lobe and pre-
frontal cortex connections than the recognition memory14.
Aligned with this neurobiological base, the cognitive com-
ponent of familiarity from the recognition memory, usually
spared in depression, is a possible cognitive mediator for
the spared performance on the recognition trial of verbal
learning observed on the DPD group15.
large for the recall components of the test (RAVLT-IR and
-DR), according to the two-factors solution proposed on
a construct validity study of this memory task10. The DPD
group also performed below the control group on the
other cognitive measures with moderate or large effect
sizes, except for the token test.
A1 A2 A3 A4 A5 B1 IR DR Rec
RAVLT: Rey auditory-verbal learning test; DPD: depressive pseudodementia;
NC: normal controls; IR: immediate recall; DR: delayed recall; NS: nonsigniﬁ-
cant. Effect sizes of signiﬁcant (p<0.05) comparisons are reported. Error bars
indicate the standard deviation.
Arq Neuropsiquiatr 2013;71(9-A):596-599
Jonas Jardim de Paula et al. Depressive pseudodementia: memory 599
e current work has important limitations. First, although
the diagnosis of DPD was performed by multidisciplinary
consensus, the participants of this study were not followed-
up systematically. is limits the analysis of cognitive symp-
tom remission (or at least they attenuation) after depression
treatment. A second limitation is the small sample size and
the heterogeneity of the participants of the DPD group, which
may limit the generalization of the current results. However, to
our knowledge, this is the rst Brazilian work with pseudode-
mentia patients aiming specic memory process analysis in
a verbal learning paradigm. e comparison of DPD patients
with dementia and mild cognitive impairment in longitudinal
studies with larger samples is important for a better compre-
hension of the relationship of DPD and memory processes.
Our results suggest that DPD presents a moderate impair-
ment in verbal learning, a marked impairment in memory
recall but spared recognition memory. is memory prole
might be useful for clinical purposes, in contexts where the
distinction between DPD, mild dementia, mild cognitive
impairment, and normal aging is necessary.
1. Meeks TW, Vahia IV, Lavretsky H, et al. A tune in “a minor” can
“b major”: A review of epidemiology, illness course, and public
health implications of subthreshold depression in older adults.
J Affect Disord 2011:129:126-142.
2. Elderkin-Thompson V, Kumar A, Bilker WB, et al. Neuropsychological
deﬁcits among patients with late-onset minor and major depression.
Arch Clin Neuropsychol 2003;18:529-549.
3. Beblo T, Sinnamon G, Baune BT. Specifying the neuropsychology of
affective disorders: clinical, demographic and neurobiological factors.
Neuropsychol Rev 2011;21:337-359.
4. Caine ED. Pseudodementia. Current concepts and future directions.
Arch Gen Psychiatry 1981;38:1359-1364.
5. Keren R. Will the real pseudodementia please stand up? Canadian Rev
Alzheimer’s Dis and Other Dementias 2008;11:11-14.
6. Clairﬁeld AM. The decreasing prevalence of reversible dementias: an
updated meta-analysis. Arch Intern Med 2003;163:2219-2229.
7. Derrer DS, Howieson DB, Mueller EA, et al. Memory testing in
dementia: how much is enough? J Geriatr Psychiatry Neurol 2001;14:1.
8. de Paula JJ, Schlottfeldt CG, Moreira L, et al. Psychometric properties
of a brief neuropsychological protocol for use in geriatric populations.
Rev Psiq Clín 2010;37:246-250.
9. Malloy-Diniz LF, Lasmar VAP, Gazinelli LSR, et al. The Rey Auditory
Verbal Learning Test: applicability for the Brazilian elderly population.
Rev Bras Psiquiatr 2007;29:324-329.
10. de Paula JJ, Melo LPC, Nicolato R, et al. Reliability and construct
validity of the Rey-Auditory Verbal Learning Test in Brazilian elders.
Rev Psiq Clín 2012;39:19-23.
11. Burt DB, Zembar MJ, Niederehe G. Depression and memory
impairment: A meta-analysis of the association, its pattern, and
speciﬁcity. Psychological Bulletin 1995;117:285-305.
12. Mesholam-Gately RI, Giuliano AJ, Zillmer EA, et al. Verbal learning in
older adults with minor and major depression. Arch Clin Neuropsychol
13. Xie C, Goveas J, Wu Z, et al. Neural basis of the association between
depressive symptoms and memory deﬁcits in nondemented
subjects: resting-state fMRI study. Human Brain Mapping 2012;33:
14. Yu SS, Johnson JD, Rugg MD. Hippocampal activity during recognition
memory co-varies with the accuracy and conﬁdence of source
memory judgments. Hippocampus 2012;22:1429-1437.
15. Yonelinas AP. The nature of recollection and familiarity: a review of 30
years of research. J Mem Language 2002;46:441-517.