Baseline reward processing and ventrostriatal dopamine function are associated with pramipexole response in depression

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The efficacy of dopamine agonists in treating major depressive disorder has been hypothesized to stem from effects on ventrostriatal dopamine and reward function. However, an important question is whether dopamine agonists are most beneficial for patients with reward-based deficits. This study evaluated whether measures of reward processing and ventrostriatal dopamine function predicted response to the dopamine agonist, pramipexole ( Identifier: NCT02033369). Individuals with major depressive disorder (n = 26) and healthy controls (n = 26) (mean ± SD age = 26.5 ± 5.9; 50% female) first underwent assessments of reward learning behaviour and ventrostriatal prediction error signalling (measured using functional MRI). 11C-(+)-PHNO PET before and after oral amphetamine was used to assess ventrostriatal dopamine release. The depressed group then received open-label pramipexole treatment for 6 weeks (0.5 mg/day titrated to a maximum daily dose of 2.5 mg). Symptoms were assessed weekly, and reward learning was reassessed post-treatment. At baseline, relative to controls, the depressed group showed lower reward learning (P = 0.02), a trend towards blunted reward-related prediction error signals (P = 0.07), and a trend towards increased amphetamine-induced dopamine release (P = 0.07). Despite symptom improvements following pramipexole (Cohen’s d ranging from 0.51 to 2.16 across symptom subscales), reward learning did not change after treatment. At a group level, baseline reward learning (P = 0.001) and prediction error signalling (P = 0.004) were both associated with symptom improvement, albeit in a direction opposite to initial predictions: patients with stronger pretreatment reward learning and reward-related prediction error signalling improved most. Baseline D2/3 receptor availability (P = 0.02) and dopamine release (P = 0.05) also predicted improvements in clinical functioning, with lower D2/3 receptor availability and lower dopamine release predicting greater improvements. Although these findings await replication, they suggest that measures of reward-related mesolimbic dopamine function may hold promise for identifying depressed individuals likely to respond favourably to dopaminergic pharmacotherapy.