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Given the heterogeneity of depression the Research Domain Criteria Framework suggests a dimensional approach to understanding the nature of mental illness. Neural reward function has been suggested as underpinning the symptom of anhedonia in depression but how anhedonia is related to aversion processing is unclear.
To assess how the dimensional experience of anhedonia and depression severity relate to reward and aversion processing in the human brain.
We examined adolescents and emerging adults (n = 84) in the age range 13–21 years. Using a dimensional approach we examined how anhedonia and depression related to physical effort to gain reward or avoid aversion and neural activity during the anticipation, motivation/effort and consummation of reward and aversion.
As anhedonia increased physical effort to gain reward decreased. As anhedonia increased neural activity decreased during effort to avoid in the precuneus and insula (trend) and increased in the caudate during aversive consummation. We found participants with depression symptoms invested less physical effort than controls and had blunted neural anticipation of reward and aversion in the precuneus, insula and prefrontal cortex and blunted neural activity during effort for reward in the putamen.
We show for the first time that both physical effort and neural activity during effort correlate with anhedonia in adolescents and that amotivation might be a specific deficit of anhedonia irrespective of valence. Future work will assess if these neural mechanisms can be used to predict blunted approach and avoidance in adolescents at risk of depression.
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