Background: Negative symptoms may be associated with dysfunction of the brain reward system in schizophrenia. We used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to assess the BOLD response in the ventral striatum of unmedicated schizophrenics during presentation of reward-indicating and loss-indicating stimuli.
Methods: A total of 10 schizophrenic men (7 never medicated, 3 unmedicated for at least 2 years) and 10 age-matched healthy male volunteers participated in an incentive monetary delay task, in which visual cues predicted that a rapid response to a subsequent target stimulus would result either in monetary gain or loss or would have no consequence.
Results: Compared to healthy controls, unmedicated schizophrenics showed reduced ventral striatal activation during the presentation of reward-indicating cues. Decreased activation of the left ventral striatum was inversely correlated with the severity of negative (and trendwise positive) symptoms.
Discussion: Reduced activation in one of the central areas of the brain reward system, the ventral striatum, was correlated with the severity of negative symptoms in medication-free schizophrenics. In unmedicated schizophrenic patients, a high striatal dopamine turnover may increase the "noise" in the reward system, thus interfering with the neuronal processing of reward-predicting cues by phasic dopamine release. This, in turn, may contribute to negative symptoms as such as anhedonia, apathy, and loss of drive and motivation.