Reward Versus Nonreward Sensitivity of the Medial Versus Lateral Orbitofrontal Cortex Relates to the Severity of Depressive Symptoms

Biol Psychiatry Cogn Neurosci Neuroimaging. 2021 Mar;6(3):259-269. doi: 10.1016/j.bpsc.2020.08.017. Epub 2020 Sep 10.


Background: The orbitofrontal cortex (OFC) is implicated in depression. The hypothesis investigated was whether the OFC sensitivity to reward and nonreward is related to the severity of depressive symptoms.

Methods: Activations in the monetary incentive delay task were measured in the IMAGEN cohort at ages 14 years (n = 1877) and 19 years (n = 1140) with a longitudinal design. Clinically relevant subgroups were compared at ages 19 (high-severity group: n = 116; low-severity group: n = 206) and 14.

Results: The medial OFC exhibited graded activation increases to reward, and the lateral OFC had graded activation increases to nonreward. In this general population, the medial and lateral OFC activations were associated with concurrent depressive symptoms at both ages 14 and 19 years. In a stratified high-severity depressive symptom group versus control group comparison, the lateral OFC showed greater sensitivity for the magnitudes of activations related to nonreward in the high-severity group at age 19 (p = .027), and the medial OFC showed decreased sensitivity to the reward magnitudes in the high-severity group at both ages 14 (p = .002) and 19 (p = .002). In a longitudinal design, there was greater sensitivity to nonreward of the lateral OFC at age 14 for those who exhibited high depressive symptom severity later at age 19 (p = .003).

Conclusions: Activations in the lateral OFC relate to sensitivity to not winning, were associated with high depressive symptom scores, and at age 14 predicted the depressive symptoms at ages 16 and 19. Activations in the medial OFC were related to sensitivity to winning, and reduced reward sensitivity was associated with concurrent high depressive symptom scores.

Keywords: Adolescents; Depression; Monetary incentive delay task; Nonreward sensitivity; Orbitofrontal cortex; Reward anticipation; Reward sensitivity; Ventral striatum.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Adult
  • Depression*
  • Frontal Lobe
  • Humans
  • Magnetic Resonance Imaging*
  • Prefrontal Cortex
  • Reward
  • Young Adult