The National Institute of Mental Health launched the Research Domain Criteria (RDoC) initiative to better understand dimensions of behavior and identify targets for treatment. Examining dimensions across psychiatric illnesses has proven challenging, as reliable behavioral paradigms that are known to engage specific neural circuits and translate across diagnostic populations are scarce. Delay discounting paradigms seem to be an exception: they are useful for understanding links between neural systems and behavior in healthy individuals, with potential for assessing how these mechanisms go awry in psychiatric illnesses. This article reviews relevant literature on delay discounting (or the rate at which the value of a reward decreases as the delay to receipt increases) in humans, including methods for examining it, its putative neural mechanisms, and its application in psychiatric research. There exist rigorous and reproducible paradigms to evaluate delay discounting, standard methods for calculating discount rate, and known neural systems probed by these paradigms. Abnormalities in discounting have been associated with psychopathology ranging from addiction (with steep discount rates indicating relative preference for immediate rewards) to anorexia nervosa (with shallow discount rates indicating preference for future rewards). The latest research suggests that delay discounting can be manipulated in the laboratory. Extensively studied in cognitive neuroscience, delay discounting assesses a dimension of behavior that is important for decision-making and is linked to neural substrates and to psychopathology. The question now is whether manipulating delay discounting can yield clinically significant changes in behavior that promote health. If so, then delay discounting could deliver on the RDoC promise.
Keywords: Cognitive neuroscience; RDoC; decision-making; delay discounting; impulsivity; intertemporal choice.