Skill Improvement Through Learning in Therapy (SKILT): A Study Protocol for a Randomized Trial Testing the Direct Effects of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy Skill Acquisition and Role of Learning Capacity in Depression


  • Sanne J. E. Bruijniks
  • Ulrike Frank
  • Brunna Tuschen-Caffier
  • Jessica Werthmann
  • Fritz Renner


Background: To improve psychological treatments for major depressive disorder (MDD), a better understanding on how symptoms ameliorate during treatment is essential. In cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), it is unclear whether procedures focused on the acquisition of CBT skills play a causal role in the improvement of CBT skills. In this randomized trial, we isolate a single CBT Skill Acquisition Procedure (CBTSAP) and test its direct effects on CBT skills and related therapy processes (i.e., change in (idiosyncratic) dysfunctional thinking and reward processing). We hypothesize that the CBTSAP causes improvements in CBT skills and related therapy processes compared to an active control condition. In addition, we hypothesize that individual differences in attentional bias and memory functioning (defined as learning capacity) moderate the effects of CBTSAP on outcomes and that using mental imagery as a cognitive support strategy to strengthen the effects of the CBTSAP will be most beneficial for patients with low learning capacity. Method: 150 patients with MDD will be randomized to one of three conditions: 1. an active control condition, 2. CBTSAP, 2. CBTSAP plus mental imagery, all consisting of three sessions. Primary outcomes will be change in CBT skills, changes in (idiosyncratic) dysfunctional thoughts and behaviors, reward processing. Depressive symptoms are a secondary outcome. Measures of learning capacity will be conducted at baseline and tested as a potential moderator. Discussion: Knowing whether and for whom the acquisition of CBT skills leads to change in therapy processes and a subsequent reduction of depressive symptoms will inform on how to personalize and optimize psychotherapy outcomes for depression. Trial registration: The trial is registered at the German Clinical Trial Register (DKTR; registration number: DRKS00024116).