Role of Reward Sensitivity and Processing in Major Depressive and Bipolar Spectrum Disorders

Behav Ther. 2016 Sep;47(5):600-621. doi: 10.1016/j.beth.2016.02.014. Epub 2016 Mar 7.


Since Costello's (1972) seminal Behavior Therapy article on loss of reinforcers or reinforcer effectiveness in depression, the role of reward sensitivity and processing in both depression and bipolar disorder has become a central area of investigation. In this article, we review the evidence for a model of reward sensitivity in mood disorders, with unipolar depression characterized by reward hyposensitivity and bipolar disorders by reward hypersensitivity. We address whether aberrant reward sensitivity and processing are correlates of, mood-independent traits of, vulnerabilities for, and/or predictors of the course of depression and bipolar spectrum disorders, covering evidence from self-report, behavioral, neurophysiological, and neural levels of analysis. We conclude that substantial evidence documents that blunted reward sensitivity and processing are involved in unipolar depression and heightened reward sensitivity and processing are characteristic of hypomania/mania. We further conclude that aberrant reward sensitivity has a trait component, but more research is needed to clearly demonstrate that reward hyposensitivity and hypersensitivity are vulnerabilities for depression and bipolar disorder, respectively. Moreover, additional research is needed to determine whether bipolar depression is similar to unipolar depression and characterized by reward hyposensitivity, or whether like bipolar hypomania/mania, it involves reward hypersensitivity.

Keywords: bipolar disorder; major depression; reward sensitivity.

MeSH terms

  • Bipolar Disorder / psychology*
  • Bipolar Disorder / therapy
  • Depressive Disorder, Major / psychology*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Mood Disorders / psychology
  • Motivation
  • Reward*