Increasing Reward Processing Could Decrease Depression for Adolescents

Adults with depression have less motivation to engage in pleasurable activities when compared to their nondepressed peers. In fact, low reward-seeking behavior is a prominent characteristic of depression. For teens, socializing with peers, participating in physical activities and humorous situations can be very rewarding. It is during adolescence that reward processing develops most dramatically. Therefore, adolescence is a prime time to evaluate the differences in reward processing among adolescents with and without depression, as well as those at risk for depression.

Adhip Rawal of the Department of Clinical, Educational, and Health Psychology at the University College London used a sample of 197 adolescents ranging in age from 10 to 18 for a recent study. All of the participants had a family member with depression and were assessed over the course of one year for reward processing, affect, and functional impairment. Rawal found that the participants that had low reward-seeking behaviors were more likely to develop symptoms of depression or have increases in symptoms when compared to those with high levels of reward-seeking behaviors. Decreased reward seeking also put participants at a greater risk of impaired functioning and limited their social relationships and extracurricular activities.

One promising finding was that the participants with depression and diminished reward seeking did not have psychomotor deficiencies. This is significant because research has shown psychomotor impairment to be a major symptom of depression in adults. For adolescents with depression or who are at risk for depression, it is possible that decision-making processes are still intact. In other words, these participants were able to make clear decisions with respect to what would bring pleasure and what wouldn’t. But those with reward seeking deficits chose not to participate in those things that would bring them pleasure. Rawal believes that this information could help clinicians in their therapeutic efforts to treat adolescents at risk for depression. “Incorporating strategies to boost effective reward responding into such preventive interventions may be worthwhile,” said Rawal.

Rawal, A., et al. ‘The risks of playing it safe’: A prospective longitudinal study of response to reward in the adolescent offspring of depressed parents. Psychological medicine 43.1 (2013): 27-38. ProQuest Research Library. Web. 30 Jan. 2013.

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  • Ree


    February 7th, 2013 at 3:52 AM

    The longer that anyone suffers from depression the more numb to life that they become. Things that bring the rest of us pleasure or pain may cause very little reaction from someone who has had to deal with being depressed for a long time.
    It is pretty encouraging to learn that for young patients there is still some hope alive in them even if we may not feel like there is. There is a spark of them that can still be reached if they are given appropriate care and have that part of them preserved before depression is allowed to fully take them over.

  • Kayleigh


    February 7th, 2013 at 7:43 AM

    Since when is a 10 year old an adolescent? That seems awful young for this study…

  • Garrison H

    Garrison H

    February 7th, 2013 at 9:04 AM

    It is great to see some markers being identified that could help therapists be on the look out for depression in adolescents. Although I am not a therapist, I am a parent of teenagers. If you are just going to look for mood swings and withdrawing from the family, every kid in America will be on an antidepressant!

  • lori


    February 8th, 2013 at 12:15 PM

    not being active socially can be a pointer to depression. there is always that friend who refuses to hand out and wants to be alone. that can be a sign of depression right there. also what can show a vulnerability to being depressed is not doing the things you know are good for you. like described in the study, some of them knew that those activities were pleasurable yet they did not participate in them.

    if we could all look for and identify these attributes in our friends we could look out for each other and help each other. i hope more people practice such observation. i know I do.

  • Nell


    February 9th, 2013 at 9:44 AM

    I didn’t realize that adults with depression had a hard time identifying what would give them pleasure and what would not. That would be so tough to feel so low all the time and not even be able to distinguish b/w what might make you feel better and what wouldn’t. What does someone do in a situation like that?

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