What do rewards have to do with mental health problems?

Photo by Jacqueline Munguía

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 [1].

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 [2].

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 [3].

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 [4]. 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 [5]. 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.

References

  1. Schultz, W. (2015). Neuronal reward and decision signals: From theories to data. Physiological Reviews, 95(3), 853-951. doi:10.1152/physrev.00023.2014
  2. Wise, R. A. (2002). Brain reward circuitry: Insights from unsensed incentives. United States: Elsevier Inc. doi:10.1016/S0896-6273(02)00965-0
  3. Zald, D. H., & Treadway, M. T. (2017). Reward processing, neuroeconomics, and psychopathology. Annual Review of Clinical Psychology, 13(1), 471-495. doi:10.1146/annurev-clinpsy-032816-044957
  4. Luman, M., Tripp, G., & Scheres, A. (2010). Identifying the neurobiology of altered reinforcement sensitivity in ADHD: A review and research agenda. Neuroscience and Biobehavioral Reviews, 34(5), 744-754. doi:10.1016/j.neubiorev.2009.11.021
  5. Stavropoulos, K. K., & Carver, L. J. (2018). Oscillatory rhythm of reward: Anticipation and processing of rewards in children with and without autism. Molecular Autism, 9(1), 4. doi:10.1186/s13229-018-0189-5

Prevalence and cost of ADHD comorbidity

Do individuals with ADHD more often suffer from depression, anxiety, substance abuse or severe obesity, than individuals without ADHD? Are there differences between men and women in how often this is the case? Does having ADHD in addition to one of these conditions result in higher health care costs?

The short answers to these questions, are yes, yes and yes. In the CoCA-project, researchers have investigated these questions using very large datasets including Scandinavian birth registries that contain information of millions of people. This allows us to get a better understanding of how often conditions occor, how often they occur together, and how often they occur in men vs women. Furthermore, we have investigated health insurance data from Germany to study patterns of health care costs associated with ADHD and its comorbid conditions.

The interpretation of these data is however not simple. That is why we have recorded a webinar with dr. Catharina Hartman from Groningen, The Netherlands. She is the leader of these studies and can explain what these findings can and cannot tell us. The webinar ends with implications for policy makers and health care professionals, based on these findings.

ADHD and cannabis use

It is not uncommon for individuals to suffer from two or more psychiatric disorders at the same time. The appearance of these disorders frequently follows a specific order, and one disorder may predispose to others, all of which in combination contribute to the worsening of the quality of life of the individuals who suffer them. This is usually associated with more severe symptoms and worse prognosis. In addition, making a diagnosis and applying personalized treatments becomes more challenging in this context. By investigating the genetic overlap between disorders, we gain better understanding of why the disorders frequently co-occur.

In mental health, substance use disorders often appear when there is another mental condition. This is the case for attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and substance use disorder, where individuals with ADHD are more likely to use drugs during their lifetime than individuals who do not have ADHD. In particular, cannabis is the most commonly used substance among individuals with ADHD, which can also lead to the use of other drugs and to the worsening of their symptoms. ADHD is one of the most common neurodevelopmental disorders, affecting around 5% of children and 2.5% of adults, and is characterized by attention deficit, hyperactivity and impulsivity. Both ADHD and cannabis use are conditions determined partly by environmental factors but where genetic factors also play an important role.

We recently investigated the genetic overlap between ADHD and cannabis use, and found that the increased probability of using cannabis in individuals with ADHD, can be, in part, due to a common genetic background between the two conditions. We identified four genetic regions involved in increasing the risk of both ADHD and cannabis use, which could point to potential druggable targets and help to develop new treatments. In addition, we confirmed a causal link between ADHD and cannabis use, and estimated that individuals with ADHD are almost 8 times more likely to consume cannabis than those who do not have ADHD. This evidence goes in line with a temporal relationship, where the ADHD appears in childhood and the use of cannabis during adolescent or adulthood. This suggests that having ADHD increases the risk of using cannabis, and not vice versa.

This research has only been possible thanks to large international collaborations by the Psychiatric Genomics Consortium (PGC), iPSYCH, and the International Cannabis Consortium (ICC), where the genomes of around 85 000 individuals were analysed.

Overall, these results support the idea that psychiatric disorders are not independent, but have a common genetic background, and share biological pathways, which put some individuals at higher risk than others. This will help to overcome the stigma of addiction and mental disorders. In addition, the potential of using genetic information to identify individuals at higher risk will have a strong impact on prevention, early detection and treatment.

Further reading

María Soler Artigas et al. Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder and lifetime cannabis use: genetic overlap and causality, Molecular Psychiatry (2019) – https://www.nature.com/articles/s41380-018-0339-3

About the author

María Soler Artigas is postdoctoral researcher at the Psychiatry, Mental Health and Addictions group at Vall d’Hebron Institut de Recerca (VHIR), also part of the Biomedical Research Networking Center in Mental Health (CIBERSAM). Her research is part of the CoCA consortium that investigates comorbid conditions of ADHD.