Context: Deficits in reward processing and their neural correlates have been associated with major depression. However, it is unclear if these deficits precede the onset of depression or are a consequence of this disorder.
Objective: To determine whether anomalous neural processing of reward characterizes children at familial risk for depression in the absence of a personal history of diagnosable disorder.
Design: Comparison of neural activity among children at low and high risk for depression as they process reward and loss.
Setting: University functional magnetic resonance imaging facility.
Participants: Thirteen 10- to 14-year-old never-disordered daughters of mothers with recurrent depression ("high risk") and 13 age-matched never-disordered daughters with no family history of depression ("low risk"). Main Outcome Measure Neural activity, as measured using functional magnetic resonance imaging, in key reward and attention neural circuitry during anticipation and receipt of reward and loss.
Results: While anticipating gains, high-risk participants showed less activation than did their low-risk counterparts in the putamen and left insula but showed greater activation in the right insula. When receiving punishment, high-risk participants showed greater activation in the dorsal anterior cingulate gyrus than did low-risk participants, who showed greater activation in the caudate and putamen.
Conclusions: Familial risk for depression affects neural mechanisms underlying the processing of reward and loss; young girls at risk for depression exhibit anomalies in the processing of reward and loss before the onset of depressive symptoms. Longitudinal studies are needed to examine whether these characteristics predict the subsequent onset of depression.