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Abnormal brain responses to social fairness in depression: an fMRI study using the Ultimatum Game

  • V. B. Gradin (a1) (a2), A. Pérez (a1), J. A. MacFarlane (a3), I. Cavin (a3), G. Waiter (a4), J. Engelmann (a5), B. Dritschel (a6), A. Pomi (a7), K. Matthews (a2) and J. D. Steele (a2)...



Depression is a prevalent disorder that significantly affects the social functioning and interpersonal relationships of individuals. This highlights the need for investigation of the neural mechanisms underlying these social difficulties. Investigation of social exchanges has traditionally been challenging as such interactions are difficult to quantify. Recently, however, neuroeconomic approaches that combine multiplayer behavioural economic paradigms and neuroimaging have provided a framework to operationalize and quantify the study of social interactions and the associated neural substrates.


We investigated brain activation using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) in unmedicated depressed participants (n = 25) and matched healthy controls (n = 25). During scanning, participants played a behavioural economic paradigm, the Ultimatum Game (UG). In this task, participants accept or reject monetary offers from other players.


In comparison to controls, depressed participants reported decreased levels of happiness in response to ‘fair’ offers. With increasing fairness of offers, controls activated the nucleus accumbens and the dorsal caudate, regions that have been reported to process social information and responses to rewards. By contrast, participants with depression failed to activate these regions with increasing fairness, with the lack of nucleus accumbens activation correlating with increased anhedonia symptoms. Depressed participants also showed a diminished response to increasing unfairness of offers in the medial occipital lobe.


Our findings suggest that depressed individuals differ from healthy controls in the neural substrates involved with processing social information. In depression, the nucleus accumbens and dorsal caudate may underlie abnormalities in processing information linked to the fairness and rewarding aspects of other people's decisions.


Corresponding author

* Address for correspondence: Dr V. B. Gradin, Faculty of Psychology, Centre for Investigation of Basic Psychology (CIBPsi), Universidad de la República, Montevideo 11200, Uruguay. (Email:


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