Vulnerability to depression

Some people are more sensitive to depression than others. But why is that the case? Clinical psychologist Niki Antypa studied how vulnerability to depression is influenced by cognition. She also found a first careful indication that a treatment with omega-3 fatty acids might provide a solution.


Niki Antypa has always been interested in psychology.

Niki Antypa has always been interested in psychology.

Everyone has a dip from time to time, but if a person feels down for a long period of time, it is referred to as a depression. Approximately 5% of the population suffer from it on a yearly basis. Whether this leads to an actual depression depends partially on the person’s cognitive vulnerability: the degree to which receiving negative information can lead to a depression.

Cognitive reactivity

In the course of her PhD research, clinical psychologist Niki Antypa has investigated a number of types of cognitive vulnerability. One of them is the so-called cognitive reactivity (CR). This is a measure of how easily someone’s normal mood fluctuation leads to negative thoughts, even when the person in question is not depressed. A high CR score means that in times of difficulty or low spirits, the person in question tends to also develop a more negative self-image. This can lead to depression.

Negative facial expressions

Fish oil capsules with omega-3 fatty acids supplements. These food supplements are becoming very popular. They are even added to cat food.

Fish oil capsules with omega-3 fatty acids supplements. These food supplements are becoming very popular. They are even added to cat food.

The Greek researcher investigated what determines someone’s CR score. She did this as part of a large national research project, the Dutch Study of Depression and Anxiety (NESDA). The study showed that genes and environmental factors play an equally important role. She also found out that a high CR score means a higher chance of a recurring depression even after the person in question has recovered. ‘The CR score can be a useful tool for treatment,’ Antypa believes.


She also examined the extent to which people’s CR score can be manipulated by administering food supplements with omega-3 fatty acids (fish oil). ‘These supplements have been much publicised lately, and they seem to have a positive effect on mood,’ says Antypa. ‘We have studied the effects of omega-3 both on healthy subjects and on a group of subjects who had recently recovered from a depression. Both groups were given either omega-3 supplements or a placebo for a month.’

Careful indication

Niki Antypa's dissertation

Niki Antypa's dissertation

What happened? ‘The healthy group was slightly less tired after the treatment and was able under certain circumstances to take more high-risk decisions. We interpreted this as a sign that they were more optimistic,’ explains Antypa. ‘The effect of the omega-3 supplements on the vulnerable group was that the subjects were less pessimistic and less tense.’ But she hastens to add that this is only a first indication. ‘The effects were very small, and the duration of the treatment was also very short. It is an indication, but further research is required to show how this works exactly.’

Psychology books

Antypa was part of the first group of foreign students who began the English-language master’s in Clinical Psychology in 2005. She graduated with honours and began her PhD project six months later. She’s been interested in her field since she was young. ‘I used to read lots of psychology books. I’ve always wanted to know what goes on in people’s heads.’

Niki Antypa defended her thesis on 21 June under the supervision of Prof. Willem van der Does.

(24 June 2011)


Last Modified: 24-06-2011