European Neuropsychopharmacology

Differential reinforcement learning responses to positive and negative information in unmedicated individuals with depression

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Major depressive disorder (MDD) is characterized by behavioral and neural abnormalities in processing both rewarding and aversive stimuli, which may impact motivational and affective symptoms. Learning paradigms have been used to assess reinforcement encoding abnormalities in MDD and their association with dysfunctional incentive-based behavior, but how the valence and context of information modulate this learning is not well understood. To address these gaps, we examined responses to positive and negative reinforcement across multiple temporal phases of information processing. While undergoing functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), 47 participants (23 unmedicated, predominantly medication-naïve participants with MDD and 24 demographically-matched HC participants) completed a probabilistic, feedback-based reinforcement learning task that allowed us to separate neural activation during motor response (choice) from reinforcement feedback and monetary outcome across two independent conditions: pursuing gains and avoiding losses. In the gain condition, MDD participants showed overall blunted learning responses (prediction error) in the dorsal striatum when receiving monetary outcome, and reduced responses in ventral striatum for positive, but not negative, prediction error. The MDD group showed enhanced sensitivity to negative information, and symptom severity was associated with better behavioral performance in the loss condition. These findings suggest that striatal responses during learning are abnormal in individuals with MDD but vary with the valence of information.