Functional Connectivity of the Nucleus Accumbens and Changes in Appetite in Patients With Depression

JAMA Psychiatry. 2022 Oct 1;79(10):993-1003. doi: 10.1001/jamapsychiatry.2022.2464.


Importance: Major depressive disorder (MDD) is characterized by a substantial burden on health, including changes in appetite and body weight. Heterogeneity of depressive symptoms has hampered the identification of biomarkers that robustly generalize to most patients, thus calling for symptom-based mapping.

Objective: To define the functional architecture of the reward circuit subserving increases vs decreases in appetite and body weight in patients with MDD by specifying their contributions and influence on disease biomarkers using resting-state functional connectivity (FC).

Design, setting, and participants: In this case-control study, functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) data were taken from the Marburg-Münster FOR 2107 Affective Disorder Cohort Study (MACS), collected between September 2014 and November 2016. Cross-sectional data of patients with MDD (n = 407) and healthy control participants (n = 400) were analyzed from March 2018 to June 2022.

Main outcomes and measures: Changes in appetite during the depressive episode and their association with FC were examined using fMRI. By taking the nucleus accumbens (NAcc) as seed of the reward circuit, associations with opposing changes in appetite were mapped, and a sparse symptom-specific elastic-net model was built with 10-fold cross-validation.

Results: Among 407 patients with MDD, 249 (61.2%) were women, and the mean (SD) age was 36.79 (13.4) years. Reduced NAcc-based FC to the ventromedial prefrontal cortex (vmPFC) and the hippocampus was associated with reduced appetite (vmPFC: bootstrap r = 0.13; 95% CI, 0.02-0.23; hippocampus: bootstrap r = 0.15; 95% CI, 0.05-0.26). In contrast, reduced NAcc-based FC to the insular ingestive cortex was associated with increased appetite (bootstrap r = -0.14; 95% CI, -0.24 to -0.04). Critically, the cross-validated elastic-net model reflected changes in appetite based on NAcc FC and explained variance increased with increasing symptom severity (all patients: bootstrap r = 0.24; 95% CI, 0.16-0.31; patients with Beck Depression Inventory score of 28 or greater: bootstrap r = 0.42; 95% CI, 0.25-0.58). In contrast, NAcc FC did not classify diagnosis (MDD vs healthy control).

Conclusions and relevance: In this study, NAcc-based FC reflected important individual differences in appetite and body weight in patients with depression that can be leveraged for personalized prediction. However, classification of diagnosis using NAcc-based FC did not exceed chance levels. Such symptom-specific associations emphasize the need to map biomarkers onto more confined facets of psychopathology to improve the classification and treatment of MDD.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Appetite
  • Body Weight
  • Case-Control Studies
  • Cohort Studies
  • Cross-Sectional Studies
  • Depression / diagnostic imaging
  • Depressive Disorder, Major* / diagnostic imaging
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Magnetic Resonance Imaging / methods
  • Male
  • Nucleus Accumbens* / diagnostic imaging