Mechanisms Underlying Motivational Dysfunction in Schizophrenia

Front Behav Neurosci. 2021 Sep 10;15:709753. doi: 10.3389/fnbeh.2021.709753. eCollection 2021.


Negative symptoms are a debilitating feature of schizophrenia which are often resistant to pharmacological intervention. The mechanisms underlying them remain poorly understood, and diagnostic methods rely on phenotyping through validated questionnaires. Deeper endo-phenotyping is likely to be necessary in order to improve current understanding. In the last decade, valuable behavioural insights have been gained through the use of effort-based decision making (EBDM) tasks. These have highlighted impairments in reward-related processing in schizophrenia, particularly associated with negative symptom severity. Neuroimaging investigations have related these changes to dysfunction within specific brain networks including the ventral striatum (VS) and frontal brain regions. Here, we review the behavioural and neural evidence associated with negative symptoms, shedding light on potential underlying mechanisms and future therapeutic possibilities. Findings in the literature suggest that schizophrenia is characterised by impaired reward based learning and action selection, despite preserved hedonic responses. Associations between amotivation and reward-processing deficits have not always been clear, and may be mediated by factors including cognitive dysfunction or dysfunctional or self-defeatist beliefs. Successful endo-phenotyping of negative symptoms as a function of objective behavioural and neural measurements is crucial in advancing our understanding of this complex syndrome. Additionally, transdiagnostic research-leveraging findings from other brain disorders, including neurological ones-can shed valuable light on the possible common origins of motivation disorders across diseases and has important implications for future treatment development.

Keywords: apathy; effort-based decision making; motivated action selection; negative symptom; reward based learning; schizophrenia.

Publication types

  • Review