Background: Early life stress (ELS) is consistently associated with increased risk for subsequent psychopathology. Individual differences in neural response to reward may confer vulnerability to stress-related psychopathology. Using data from the ongoing Duke Neurogenetics Study, the present study examined whether reward-related ventral striatum (VS) reactivity moderates the relationship between retrospectively reported ELS and anhedonic symptomatology. We further assessed whether individual differences in reward-related VS reactivity were associated with other depressive symptoms and problematic alcohol use via stress-related anhedonic symptoms and substance use-associated coping.
Method: Blood oxygen level-dependent functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) was collected while participants (n = 906) completed a card-guessing task, which robustly elicits VS reactivity. ELS, anhedonic symptoms, other depressive symptoms, coping behavior, and alcohol use behavior were assessed with self-report questionnaires. Linear regressions were run to examine whether VS reactivity moderated the relationship between ELS and anhedonic symptoms. Structural equation models examined whether this moderation was indirectly associated with other depression symptoms and problematic alcohol use through its association with anhedonia.
Results: Analyses of data from 820 participants passing quality control procedures revealed that the VS × ELS interaction was associated with anhedonic symptoms (p = 0.011). Moreover, structural equation models indirectly linked this interaction to non-anhedonic depression symptoms and problematic alcohol use through anhedonic symptoms and substance-related coping.
Conclusions: These findings suggest that reduced VS reactivity to reward is associated with increased risk for anhedonia in individuals exposed to ELS. Such stress-related anhedonia is further associated with other depressive symptoms and problematic alcohol use through substance-related coping.
Keywords: Alcohol; anhedonia; depression; early life stress; fMRI; reward; ventral striatum.