BACKGROUND: Alterations in reward processing may represent an early vulnerability factor for the development of depressive disorder. Depression in adults is associated with reward hyposensitivity and diminished reward seeking may also be a feature of depression in children and adolescents. We examined the role of reward responding in predicting depressive symptoms, functional impairment and new-onset depressive disorder over time in the adolescent offspring of depressed parents. In addition, we examined group differences in reward responding between currently depressed adolescents, psychiatric and healthy controls, and also cross-sectional associations between reward responding and measures of positive social/environmental functioning. Method We conducted a 1-year longitudinal study of adolescents at familial risk for depression (n = 197; age range 10-18 years). Reward responding and self-reported social/environmental functioning were assessed at baseline. Clinical interviews determined diagnostic status at baseline and at follow-up. Reports of depressive symptoms and functional impairment were also obtained.
RESULTS: Low reward seeking predicted depressive symptoms and new-onset depressive disorder at the 1-year follow-up in individuals free from depressive disorder at baseline, independently of baseline depressive symptoms. Reduced reward seeking also predicted functional impairment. Adolescents with current depressive disorder were less reward seeking (i.e. bet less at favourable odds) than adolescents free from psychopathology and those with externalizing disorders. Reward seeking showed positive associations with social and environmental functioning (extra-curricular activities, humour, friendships) and was negatively associated with anhedonia. There were no group differences in impulsivity, decision making or psychomotor slowing.
CONCLUSIONS: Reward seeking predicts depression severity and onset in adolescents at elevated risk of depression. Adaptive reward responses may be amenable to change through modification of existing preventive psychological interventions.
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