A study recently published in Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience provides new details about the possible neurophysiological underpinnings of depression and social anxiety. The findings indicate that people with depression tend to have blunted brain responses to rewards. Those with social anxiety, on the other hand, tend to have enhanced brain responses to positive monetary and social feedback as well as enhanced responses to negative social feedback.
“There has been a growing interest in examining neural activity to social feedback as a potential key mechanism of dysfunction in multiple forms of psychopathology, such as depression and social anxiety,” explained Brady Nelson, an assistant professor of clinical psychology at Stony Brook University and the corresponding author of the study.
“However, the literature on this topic has contained a number of critical confounds and design flaws. We wanted to more definitely test whether domain-specific neural activity to social feedback was associated with depression and anxiety symptoms, or, whether these relationships were actually due to domain-general neural activity, irrespective of the type of feedback.”
In the study, the researchers recorded the electrical brain activity of 204 participants as they completed monetary and social feedback tasks. Nelson and his colleague were particularly interested in a pattern of brain activity known as reward positivity, which is believed to be involved in reinforcement learning and reward-processing. A larger reward positivity signal reflects an enhanced brain response to receiving a reward.
“We found evidence that both domain-general and domain-specific neural activity was associated with psychopathology symptoms. Specifically, more blunted neural activity to monetary and social feedback was associated with greater depression symptoms,” Nelson told PsyPost. In other words, greater depression symptoms were associated with a diminished reward positivity response.
“In contrast, more enhanced neural activity to monetary and social feedback was associated with greater social anxiety symptoms. We also found that more enhanced neural activity to social dislike feedback per se was associated with greater social anxiety symptoms,” Nelson explained.
“Together, these results suggest that depression is characterized by blunted domain-general neural reward activity, but social anxiety is characterized by aberrations in both domain-general and domain-specific neural reward activity.”
But as with any study, the research includes some limitations.
“The study was conducted in college students and requires replication in other populations, such as children and clinical samples. The study was also cross-sectional, and additional longitudinal research is needed to determine potential causal relationships between domain-general and domain-specific neural activity and psychopathology symptoms,” Nelson said.
“We believe that these results demonstrate that researchers should employ well-designed experimental paradigms that allow for the examination of both non-specific and domain-specific neural activity to social feedback in relation to psychopathology.”
The study, “Neural response to monetary and social feedback demonstrates differential associations with depression and social anxiety“, was authored by Brady D. Nelson and Johanna M. Jarcho.