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In Event: Neurocognitive Mechanisms of Reward Processing and Social Dysfunction across Childhood and Adolescence
The transition from adolescence to young adulthood is a challenging developmental period that is also characterized by increased symptoms of depression and social anxiety. However, the specific neural mechanism(s) that contribute to these symptoms remain unknown. A growing literature suggests that an aberrant neural response to rewards differentiates depression and social anxiety. Depression has been associated with blunted neural response to rewards whereas social anxiety has been associated with an enhanced neural response. A critical limitation to this literature is that most studies have focused on the neural response to monetary rewards, and few have tested different modalities of reward that may be more salient to particular forms of psychopathology. In addition, most studies contrast positive (e.g., winning money) and negative (e.g., losing money) valence feedback, making it difficult to determine which condition(s) contribute to aberrant neural responses. Finally, no studies disentangle the intrinsically rewarding experience of being correct from obtaining positively valenced feedback in relation to depression and social anxiety.
In this study, 204 late adolescents (130 females, Mage = 19.92, SDage = 2.50) underwent electroencephalography while completing a novel paradigm comprised of counterbalanced monetary and social feedback tasks that were matched in trial structure, timing, and feedback stimuli. For each task, participants were instructed to correctly identify the door or age-matched peer that would provide positive feedback (win money/social like), and another where the goal was to correctly identify the door or peer that would provide negative feedback (lose money/social dislike). The reward positivity (RewP), an event-related potential posited to reflect activation of a reinforcement learning system, was measured in response to correctly identifying stimuli that resulted in monetary win or loss, social like or dislike feedback. Participants also completed self-report measures of depression and social anxiety symptoms, and stress.
Results indicated that correctly identifying stimuli that resulted in monetary win, social like, and social dislike feedback elicited RewPs that were correlated with each other (r’s = .35 to .46); monetary loss feedback did not elicit a RewP. Across monetary and social tasks, the RewP to correct feedback demonstrated the opposite relation with depression and social anxiety: a smaller RewP was associated with greater depression symptoms (r = -.20, p = .004), whereas a larger RewP was associated with greater social anxiety symptoms (r = .20, p = .004). In addition, unique variance in the RewP to social dislike feedback was associated with social anxiety: a larger RewP to social dislike feedback was associated with greater social anxiety symptoms (r = .16, p = .022). Finally, all RewP-symptom relations were moderated by stress, such that each was the strongest in the context of high stress.
This study provides novel evidence that in late adolescence the electrocortical response to being correct is differentially related to depression and social anxiety, while neural response to social dislike feedback is uniquely related to social anxiety. Stress potentiates these relations, suggesting a mechanism by which the challenge of transitioning from late adolescence to adulthood may increase risk for depression and social anxiety.