Background: Mania is characterised by increased impulsivity and risk-taking, and psychological accounts argue that these features may be due to hypersensitivity to reward. The neurobiological mechanisms remain poorly understood. Here we examine reinforcement learning and sensitivity to both reward and punishment outcomes in hypomania-prone individuals not receiving pharmacotherapy.
Method: We recorded EEG from 45 healthy individuals split into three groups by low, intermediate and high self-reported hypomanic traits. Participants played a computerised card game in which they learned the reward contingencies of three cues. Neural responses to monetary gain and loss were measured using the feedback-related negativity (FRN), a component implicated in motivational outcome evaluation and reinforcement learning.
Results: As predicted, rewards elicited a smaller FRN in the hypomania-prone group relative to the low hypomania group, indicative of greater reward responsiveness. The hypomania-prone group also showed smaller FRN to losses, indicating diminished response to negative feedback.
Conclusion: Our findings indicate that proneness to hypomania is associated with both reward hypersensitivity and discounting of punishment. This positive evaluation bias may be driven by aberrant reinforcement learning signals, which fail to update future expectations. This provides a possible neural mechanism explaining risk-taking and impaired reinforcement learning in BD. Further research will be needed to explore the potential value of the FRN as a biological vulnerability marker for mania and pathological risk-taking.