Adolescents Vulnerable to Depression Exhibit Impaired Reward Processing

Research has shown that depression runs in families. “There is consistent evidence that depression aggregates within families, such that the odds of onset are three times greater in children with a parental history of depression, and recent approaches have sought to identify mechanisms by which this risk is transferred across generations,” said Dan Foti, of the Department of Psychology at Stony Book University in New York. “It remains to be shown, however, whether abnormal reward processing may similarly act as a mechanism for depression vulnerability.” Foti led a study that explored this dynamic based on previous evidence that has shown that non-depressed individuals respond better to rewards than depressed people. He said, “In the current study, we sought to pursue this question and examine how abnormal reward processing is associated with familial risk for depression.”

Using a sample of 81 teenage girls, Foti and his colleagues conducted experiments focusing on feedback negativity (FN) responses. After eliciting a negative mood from the teens, the researchers prompted the girls with cues that had monetary rewards attached to them. They found that the girls who were the saddest showed less preference in their responses. “The association between sadness and the FN in the current sample was stronger among high-risk adolescents, who had a parent with a history of depression, compared to low-risk adolescents, even after adjusting for differences in neuroticism.” Foti added, “It is worth noting that, although the association between state mood and the FN was significantly stronger among high-risk adolescents, FN magnitude was reduced in the high-risk group compared to the low-risk group only at the highest levels of measured sadness—and the main effect of risk was non-significant. This pattern predicts that group differences between low- and high-risk adolescents may continue to become more pronounced in response to more extreme disturbances in mood, or in response to major life stressors that exert a greater impact than laboratory-based negative inductions.” He went on to say, “These results indicate that the FN is a useful neural measure for detecting abnormal reward sensitivity in high-risk populations and, by examining the FN in conjunction with family history and personality characteristics, it may be possible to attain a better understanding of the mechanisms of depression vulnerability.”

Foti, Dan, Roman Kotov, Daniel N. Klein, and Greg Hajcak. “Abnormal Neural Sensitivity to Monetary Gains Versus Losses Among Adolescents at Risk for Depression.” Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology 39 (2011): 913-24. Print.

© Copyright 2011 by By John Smith, therapist in Bellingham, Washington. All Rights Reserved. Permission to publish granted to

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • Eddie Richardson

    Eddie Richardson

    October 29th, 2011 at 1:05 PM

    What they try to give them money to make them feel better? For goodness sake. If that was all it took there would be no rich kids (or adults for that matter) struggling with depression. I guess no-one taught them that money doesn’t buy happiness.

  • Amy


    October 29th, 2011 at 1:26 PM

    Depression as an inheritance?? That just doesn’t sound right! While genetics may play a role and may make certain people more vulnerable to depression than others, a bigger and far more important role is played by the environment a person grows up in. If the parents are constantly depressed and/or do not pay attention to the child’s needs then it would definitely make the child more susceptible to being depressed!

  • Sadie Hurley

    Sadie Hurley

    October 29th, 2011 at 3:32 PM

    I have a question. It states there that “There is consistent evidence that depression aggregates within families, such that the odds of onset are three times greater in children with a parental history of depression, and recent approaches have sought to identify mechanisms by which this risk is transferred across generations.”

    If you both parents suffer from depression instead of one, does that double the risk? In other words, would that make the child six times more likely to develop depression?

  • W.R.


    October 29th, 2011 at 4:20 PM

    I come from a family where depression runs through generations the way a certain hair color does in others. I don’t know of any women in mine that aren’t prone to bouts of depression, some more severely than others. Gifts don’t make that all better when it’s already so ingrained in your DNA.



    October 29th, 2011 at 11:34 PM

    I can imagine how this works-Depression does occupy ur mind like a virus and does nt let u remain capable of 2 much of other processing.So the reward perception might change as well in such individuals.A scary scenario indeed!

  • Ginny


    October 30th, 2011 at 5:26 AM

    I for one do not necessarily think that this has to be your life sentence. My own mom was depressed for most of my childhood. I remember days and even weeks of her never even hetting out of bed. But I swore that when I grew up I was not going to be that way. I was going to be a real mom and not do that to my kids. We felt abandoned by here even though she was in the same house! So I made that choice to rise above that. I know that there is always a risk that this could happen to me, but honestly it could happen to anyone. You have to be able to pull yourself up though and get through it. It does not have to mean that this is your fate too.

  • Wendell Dennis

    Wendell Dennis

    October 30th, 2011 at 3:18 PM

    Depression takes many shapes or forms. When I’m having a bad patch of depression I go through this kind of emotional disconnect. It’s not easy to describe. It’s as if I’m in neutral and can’t relate to anybody or events the way I normally do. It can and does get better when you find the right treatment that works for you. Keep in mind this too shall pass.

  • Hannah


    October 30th, 2011 at 11:45 PM

    Depression is like a vacuum that just doesn let you be able to concentrate on or accomplish almost anything.I have been through a long depression and although it is not impossible to break its shackles it sure is tough and it can really play with you when its still there.

  • Ginger


    October 31st, 2011 at 4:10 AM

    Makes me feel pretty sad to read that their are kids who are it almost seems pre destined to live a life filled with sadness and depression.
    It’s not like something that they can control, but they are always in constant motion toward that inevitability.

  • Gabby Mae

    Gabby Mae

    October 31st, 2011 at 7:49 AM

    So while I am glad that this is apparea good indicator for daignosis, how about something that is going to help with the treatment? I find it difficult to believe that depression in younger kids is so hard to pinpoint, but I do believe that the treatment phase could be something that could cause even the most seasoned therapists problems. It is not like kids are always going to be able to verbalize what is going on, and without that concersation the therapist may not be able to get to the real root of the issues without some family intervention and treatment too.

  • cool candy

    cool candy

    October 31st, 2011 at 11:42 AM

    ^^its surprising for me too. if you are a good parent and do monitor your young child (which you really should in any case) then there is no reason why any underlying depression would go unnoticed. only an irresponsible parent would let that pass!

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