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Anhedonia, the loss of pleasure or interest in previously rewarding stimuli, is a core feature of major depression. While theorists have argued that anhedonia reflects a reduced capacity to experience pleasure, evidence is mixed as to whether anhedonia is caused by a reduction in hedonic capacity. An alternative explanation is that anhedonia is due to the inability to sustain positive affect across time. Using positive images, we used an emotion regulation task to test whether individuals with depression are unable to sustain activation in neural circuits underlying positive affect and reward. While up-regulating positive affect, depressed individuals failed to sustain nucleus accumbens activity over time compared with controls. This decreased capacity was related to individual differences in self-reported positive affect. Connectivity analyses further implicated the fronto-striatal network in anhedonia. These findings support the hypothesis that anhedonia in depressed patients reflects the inability to sustain engagement of structures involved in positive affect and reward.
BACKGROUND: Anhedonia, a reduced ability to experience pleasure, is a chief symptom of major depressive disorder and is related to reduced frontostriatal connectivity when attempting to upregulate positive emotion. The present study examined another facet of positive emotion regulation associated with anhedonia-namely, the downregulation of positive affect-and its relation to prefrontal cortex (PFC) activity. METHODS: Neuroimaging data were collected from 27 individuals meeting criteria for major depressive disorder as they attempted to suppress positive emotion during a positive emotion regulation task. Their PFC activation pattern was compared with the PFC activation pattern exhibited by 19 healthy control subjects during the same task. Anhedonia scores were collected at three time points: at baseline (time 1), 8 weeks after time 1 (i.e., time 2), and 6 months after time 1 (i.e., time 3). Prefrontal cortex activity at time 1 was used to predict change in anhedonia over time. Analyses were conducted utilizing hierarchical linear modeling software. RESULTS: Depressed individuals who could not inhibit positive emotion-evinced by reduced right ventrolateral prefrontal cortex activity during attempts to dampen their experience of positive emotion in response to positive visual stimuli-exhibited a steeper anhedonia reduction slope between baseline and 8 weeks of treatment with antidepressant medication (p < .05). Control subjects showed a similar trend between baseline and time 3. CONCLUSIONS: To reduce anhedonia, it may be necessary to teach individuals how to counteract the functioning of an overactive pleasure-dampening prefrontal inhibitory system.