Executive functioning is made up of a broad range of capabilities including the ability to pay attention, the ability to transfer one's attention from one thing to another, the ability to hold information in one's working memory, and planning. People who suffer from anxiety and depression often have problems with their ability to concentrate and inhibit their impulses making some scientists think that they have problems with their executive functioning. However, it is not known whether these problems with executive functioning come before or after the onset of anxiety or depression i.e. whether they are a cause or a symptom of mental-health problems. Researchers from the Massachusetts General Hospital studied 147 children. Some of their parents had depression, others had anxiety and the rest formed an unaffected control group. The idea was that any genetic tendency towards poorer executive functioning in people at risk from depression and anxiety would be reflected in children whose parents suffered from these conditions. The study found that children whose parents suffered from anxiety, or depression did not have poorer executive functioning. However, those children who did have depression or anxiety themselves did show worse executive functioning. Children with depression had poorer performance on several executive functioning and processing speed measures. Children with anxiety had a poorer verbal memory and children with social phobia made more mistakes on a continuous performance task. The results of the study tend to support the idea that poorer executive functioning is a symptom of depression and anxiety rather than a cause.
Micco, Jaime A. ... [et al] - Executive functioning in offspring at risk for depression and anxiety Depression and Anxiety September 2009, 26(9), 780-790