Unipolar and bipolar depression are known to exert detrimental effects on learning and memory processes. However, few comparisons have been undertaken between bipolar and unipolar patients with comparable illness histories, and predictors of impairment are not well understood. Adult outpatients with unipolar major depressive illness (UP, n = 30) and bipolar disorder (BP, n = 30), group-matched for illness duration and severity of depressive symptomatology (16% clinically remitted, 42% partially remitted, 42% depressed), and 30 demographically matched controls completed measures of general cognitive functioning and declarative memory. Despite comparable general intellectual abilities, BP and UP patients exhibited significant memory deficits relative to healthy controls. A similar deficit profile was observed in both patient groups, involving poorer verbal recall and recognition. Impairments were not secondary to strategic processing deficits or rapid forgetting. Although depression severity was not associated with neurocognitive performance, number of hospitalizations and family history of mood disorder significantly affected memory function in BP, but not UP, patients. Results suggest qualitatively similar patterns of memory impairment in BP and UP patients, consistent with a primary encoding deficit. These impairments do not appear to be secondary to clinical state, but rather suggest a similar underlying pathophysiology involving medial temporal dysfunction. (c) 2005 Elsevier Ireland Ltd. All rights reserved.