Analysis of 50 Prior Studies Confirms Reward-Processing Issues in Depression

Analysis of 50 Prior Studies Confirms Reward-Processing Issues in Depression

Posted: August 27, 2018
Analysis of 50 Prior Studies Confirms Reward-Processing Issues in Depression

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Analyzing 50 fMRI and EEG studies, researchers confirm that the brain in depressed people does not process rewards properly. Some signatures of this problem may be reliably recognized in the brains of adolescents, before they become depressed, an observation if confirmed that might help in the creation of new diagnostic tools.


Researchers have analyzed 50 previously published imaging and brainwave-pattern studies with the aim of determining what, together, they tell us about how reward processing in the brain differs in people with depression. Their analysis, recently published in The American Journal of Psychiatry, finds consistent signs of neural dysfunction during reward processing in depressed people.

Specifically, they noted that functional MRI (fMRI) imaging studies showed reduced signaling from the brain’s striatal region during reward feedback, while EEG studies showed a blunted signal related to when the brain weighs losses vs. gains in assessing reward. In studies that followed adolescent patients long-term, these trends preceded depression, the researchers found, and thus might be used in the future to predict the onset of new cases of depression and to identify those at increased risk.

The research was led by Argyris Stringaris, M.D., Ph.D., and his postdoc Hanna Keren, Ph.D., at the National Institute of Mental Health, and included NIMH researchers Daniel S. Pine, Ph.D., a Scientific Council Member, 2011 Ruane Prize recipient and 2000 Independent Investigator, and Scientific Council Member Ellen Leibenluft, M.D.

The study helps to confirm problems with reward processing in depression, a factor that has long been thought to be involved in the disorder, as depressed patients report feeling less (or no) pleasure and less interest in seeking out activities and social interactions.

The analysis of the fMRI and EEG studies suggests that people with depression show neural signs of being less sensitive to anticipating and consuming rewards, compared to people without depression.

“Taken together,” the researchers write of their meta-analysis, or study of other studies, “the findings show consistent neural aberrations during reward processing in depression … [which] may underlie the pathogenesis of depression and have important implications for development of new treatments.”

Related Webinar: Finding and Fixing Broken Brain Circuits in Depression