What do you think of when I say “rewards”? Perhaps you think of the points you collect every time you shop or the badges you get when playing a videogame. Well, then you’re right! A reward can be anything. A good grade, going on a trip with friends, a smile, and even that dessert you crave in the middle of the night. Rewards are any stimuli with the potential to make us seek and consume them, and if we like, we will probably want to get them again .
Actually, you crave that dessert because you ate it once, and you liked it so much that your brain learned that eating that dessert again will make you feel good. This happens because of a neurotransmitter called “dopamine” released when you eat the dessert, giving you that little rush of pleasure. Now your brain knows what you like and will want more of that.
By now, you probably have realized that rewards are present in virtually everything we do in our daily lives. That is why seeking and consuming rewards are considered to be a fundamental characteristic of human behavior. These rewards that we keep consuming guarantee that we stay alive by eating and drinking water, for example. Rewards also have a huge influence on how we experience positive emotions, motivate ourselves to perform tasks, and learn new things .
What about the relationship between rewards and mental health problems?
Although rewards are natural stimuli that make us keep doing healthy and nurturing things, it can also become a problem. Rewards are not the problem itself, but some people can have an unhealthy behavior towards rewards. That’s where mental health problems come in. Did you know that most mental health conditions have alterations in how rewards are processed in the brain? It’s so common that these so-called reward processing alterations are now considered a “transdiagnostic feature,” meaning we can find them across different mental health conditions .
Reward processing is a term to refer to all aspects related to how we approach and consume rewards. For instance, how you respond after getting a reward (responsiveness), how motivated you are to go after a reward (drive/motivation), how impulsive you are when trying to get new and intense rewards (fun-seeking/impulsivity). So, as you can see, it’s not only about getting the rewards, but many different things play a role in a simple action we do.
Let’s think of an example: You are going to a party with your best friends. You are motivated to go out with your friends because you’re always happy when you are around them [this is the drive/motivation]. Once you are at the party, you meet your friends, talk, laugh and are happy you decided to join because you’re feeling that rush of pleasure [this is the responsiveness aspect]. At some parties, things can get a bit out of control, and some people might do risky things on the spur of the moment, like binge drinking. You refuse to binge drink because you thought of the risks, and you don’t want to be in trouble later [that’s the third aspect, the fun-seeking/impulsivity].
Now, let’s think of how that party would be for people with reward processing alterations. In the case of a very high drive, they would be super motivated to hang out with friends. On the other hand, if they have low responsiveness, they wouldn’t be able to have fun at the party even though all of their friends are there and the party is super fun. Lastly, in the case of high fun-seeking/impulsivity, they wouldn’t think of the risks and consequences and engage in binge drinking anyways.
As I mentioned before, these alterations play a role in different mental health conditions. They can affect one or more aspects of reward processing, and they can be either lower or higher than average. For example, people with ADHD can show higher risk-taking, meaning that they are more susceptible to take big risks without thinking about the consequences . This impulsive behavior might be a reflection of the altered fun-seeking aspect of reward processing. Another example is the lack of interest in social interactions in people with autism spectrum disorders . This lack of interest might reflect a reduced drive/motivation to go after social rewards.
These are just some examples of what reward processing alterations might look like in the context of mental health problems. There are still a lot of open questions. As part of my PhD research, I am trying to answer some of them. For example, which came first? Are reward processing alterations causing mental health problems, or are they just mere symptoms of these conditions? If you want to learn more about this topic, stay tuned as more blog posts will come!
Dener Cardoso Melo is a PhD candidate at the University Medical Center Groningen (UMCG). He is using data from the CoCA project together with other datasets to investigate the potential causal role of reward processing alterations in different mental health conditions.
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