Objective: To examine the relationship between reward sensitivity and self-reported apathy in stroke patients and to investigate the neuroanatomical correlates of both reward sensitivity and apathy.
Methods: In this prospective study, 55 chronic stroke patients were administered a questionnaire to assess apathy and a laboratory task to examine reward sensitivity by measuring motivationally driven behavior ("reinforcement-related speeding"). Fifteen participants without brain damage served as controls for the laboratory task. Negative mood, working memory, and global cognitive functioning were also measured to determine whether reward insensitivity and apathy were secondary to cognitive impairments or negative mood. Voxel-based lesion-symptom mapping was used to explore the neuroanatomical substrates of reward sensitivity and apathy.
Results: Participants showed reinforcement-related speeding in the highly reinforced condition of the laboratory task. However, this effect was significant for the controls only. For patients, poorer reward sensitivity was associated with greater self-reported apathy (p < 0.05) beyond negative mood and after lesion size was controlled for. Neither apathy nor reward sensitivity was related to working memory or global cognitive functioning. Voxel-based lesion-symptom mapping showed that damage to the ventral putamen and globus pallidus, dorsal thalamus, and left insula and prefrontal cortex was associated with poorer reward sensitivity. The putamen and thalamus were also involved in self-reported apathy.
Conclusions: Poor reward sensitivity in stroke patients with damage to the ventral basal ganglia, dorsal thalamus, insula, or prefrontal cortex constitutes a core feature of apathy. These results provide valuable insight into the neural mechanisms and brain substrate underlying apathy.