A prospective 12-year study of subsyndromal and syndromal depressive symptoms in unipolar major depressive disorders

Lewis L. Judd, Hagop S. Akiskal, Jack D. Maser, Pamela J. Zeller, Jean Endicott, William Coryell, Martin P. Paulus, Jelena L. Kunovac, Andrew C. Leon, Timothy I. Mueller, John A. Rice, Martin B. Keller

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706 Scopus citations


Background: Investigations of unipolar major depressive disorder (MDD) have focused primarily on major depressive episode remission/recovery and relapse/recurrence. This is the first prospective, naturalistic, long-term study of the weekly symptomatic course of MDD. Methods: The weekly depressive symptoms of 431 patients with MDD seeking treatment at 5 academic centers were divided into 4 levels of severity: (1) depressive symptoms at the threshold for MDD; (2) depressive symptoms at the threshold for minor depressive or dysthymic disorder (MinD); (3) subsyndromal or subthreshold depressive symptoms (SSDs), below the thresholds for MinD and MDD; and (4) no depressive symptoms. The percentage of weeks at each level, number of changes in symptom level, and medication status were analyzed overall and for 3 subgroups defined by mood disorder history. Results: Patients were symptomatically ill in 59% of weeks. Symptom levels changed frequently (1.8/y), and 9 of 10 patients spent weeks at 3 or 4 different levels during follow-up. The MinD (27%) and SSD (17%) symptom levels were more common than the MDD (15%) symptom level. Patients with double depression and recurrent depression had more chronic symptoms than patients with their first lifetime major depressive episode (72% and 65%, respectively, vs 46% of follow-up weeks). Conclusion: The long-term weekly course of unipolar MDD is dominated by prolonged symptomatic chronicity. Combined MinD and SSD level symptoms were about 3 times more common (43%) than MDD level symptoms (15%). The symptomatic course is dynamic and changeable, and MDD, MinD, and SSD symptom levels commonly alternate over time in the same patients as a symptomatic continuum of illness activity of a single clinical disease.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)694-700
Number of pages7
JournalArchives of General Psychiatry
Issue number8
StatePublished - Aug 1998


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