Teens often spend hours seeking out pleasurable activities each week. Parents may scratch their heads and express frustration at their teens’ seemingly endless pursuit of fun while responsibilities connected with schoolwork and home are pushed aside. Time with friends and time engaged in extracurricular activities seem to take a disproportionate amount of dedication compared to other, more important activities, like homework.
Teens with depression, however, often have a skewed order of priorities when compared with their peers. Instead of choosing activities that bring them pleasure, they may purposely avoid situations that they expect will be enjoyable.
A new study illustrates this connection by comparing the reward processing among teenagers with depression compared with that of teens who are not depressed. Because reward processing is largely developed during adolescence, it is an ideal time to examine the role of reward processing in the presence of depression and its role in predicting the development of depression.
The study, led by Adhip Rawal from the Department of Clinical, Educational and Health Psychology at the University College London, looked at reward processing among a group of students between the ages of 10 and 18. The 197 participants each had a family member with a diagnosis of depression and were examined over a period of 12 months to determine levels of functional impairment, reward processing and affect.
The researchers determined that students with a low level of reward-seeking patterns of behavior were at an increased risk for developing symptoms associated with depression or exhibited an increased level of symptoms when they were examined in comparison to those shown to have higher levels of reward seeking.
Those who had low levels of reward-seeking were also shown to have an increased level of impaired functioning. They were also more likely to refrain from participating in social situations and extracurricular opportunities.
However, the participants that met criteria for depression and exhibited a lower level of reward-seeking behaviors did not exhibit psychomotor deficiencies. This finding was important because prior studies have connected problems with psychomotor functioning to depression in adults and consider it to be an indicating symptom of the disorder.
The researchers believe that the difference in psychomotor functioning in teens may be connected to decision-making processes that are still operating smoothly during the teen years. The teens may be able to clearly make decisions about what would be a pleasurable activity and what would not, but are choosing to not participate in an activity that would bring pleasure.
The findings of the study may be helpful in identifying adolescents who are at risk for depression. Targeting teens at an increased risk for development of depression may allow for therapies that focus on boosting reward response.
The study’s results appear in a recent issue of the journal Psychological Medicine.