A Semiparametric Inverse Reinforcement Learning Approach to Characterize Decision Making for Mental Disorders

J Am Stat Assoc. 2024;119(545):27-38. doi: 10.1080/01621459.2023.2261184. Epub 2023 Nov 22.


Major depressive disorder (MDD) is one of the leading causes of disability-adjusted life years. Emerging evidence indicates the presence of reward processing abnormalities in MDD. An important scientific question is whether the abnormalities are due to reduced sensitivity to received rewards or reduced learning ability. Motivated by the probabilistic reward task (PRT) experiment in the EMBARC study, we propose a semiparametric inverse reinforcement learning (RL) approach to characterize the reward-based decision-making of MDD patients. The model assumes that a subject's decision-making process is updated based on a reward prediction error weighted by the subject-specific learning rate. To account for the fact that one favors a decision leading to a potentially high reward, but this decision process is not necessarily linear, we model reward sensitivity with a non-decreasing and nonlinear function. For inference, we estimate the latter via approximation by I-splines and then maximize the joint conditional log-likelihood. We show that the resulting estimators are consistent and asymptotically normal. Through extensive simulation studies, we demonstrate that under different reward-generating distributions, the semiparametric inverse RL outperforms the parametric inverse RL. We apply the proposed method to EMBARC and find that MDD and control groups have similar learning rates but different reward sensitivity functions. There is strong statistical evidence that reward sensitivity functions have nonlinear forms. Using additional brain imaging data in the same study, we find that both reward sensitivity and learning rate are associated with brain activities in the negative affect circuitry under an emotional conflict task.

Keywords: behavioral phenotyping; learning ability; major depression; monotone splines; reward learning; semiparametric model.