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Psychopharmacology (Berl). 2009 Sep;205(4):667-77. doi: 10.1007/s00213-009-1573-9. Epub 2009 Jun 16.

Neural representation of reward in recovered depressed patients.

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  • 1University Department of Psychiatry, Warneford Hospital, University of Oxford, Oxford, UK.



Anhedonia, a loss of interest and pleasure in normally rewarding stimuli, is a key diagnostic criterion for major depression. It has been suggested that deficits in the processing of reward-relevant stimuli could represent an endophenotype for depression. We hypothesized that people at risk of depression by virtue of a personal history of the illness would show impaired neural responses to a primary rewarding stimulus.


Using functional magnetic resonance imaging, we measured the neural response to the sight and flavor of chocolate, and their combination, in 13 unmedicated recovered patients with a history of major depression and 14 healthy controls matched for age and gender. We also examined a control aversive condition consisting of the sight of moldy strawberries and a corresponding unpleasant taste. Participants simultaneously recorded subjective ratings of "pleasantness," "intensity," and "wanting."


Despite no differences between the groups in stimulus ratings, patients showed decreased neural responses to the pleasant stimulus in the ventral striatum and increases in the caudate nucleus to the aversive stimulus. Furthermore, patients had a diminished neural supralinearity response (the potentiation produced by simultaneous presentation of the sight and flavor of the stimuli) in the prefrontal cortex for both aversive and pleasant conditions. Patients recovered from depression appear to have deficits in the neural basis of reward and may also have impairments in the cross-modal integration of sensory stimuli.


These findings support the view that abnormal neural responses to reward may be an endophenotype for depression and a potential target for intervention and prevention strategies.

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