Depressive disorders are associated with significant economic and public health burdens as well as increased morbidity. Yet, perhaps due to the heterogeneous nature of the disease, prevention and intervention efforts are only moderately efficacious. A better understanding of core mechanisms of depressive disorders might aid in the development of more targeted intervention, and perhaps help identify individuals at risk. One mechanism that may be particularly important to depressive phenotypes is reward insensitivity. Examination of neurobiological correlates of reward-processing, which should relate more directly to the neuropathology of depression, may be helpful in identifying liability for the disorder. To that end, we used a family study design to examine whether a neural response to rewards is a familial risk factor for depression in a sample of probands with a wide range of internalizing psychopathology, as well as their biological siblings. Event-related potentials were recorded during a simple forced-choice gambling paradigm, in which participants could either win or lose small amounts of money. Lower levels of positive affect in probands predicted a reduced neural response to rewards in siblings, even over and above the sibling's own level of positive and negative affect. Additionally, the neural response to rewards was familial (i.e., correlated among siblings). Combined, these analyses suggest that a blunted neural response to rewards may be useful in identifying individuals vulnerable to depressive illnesses.
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