Major Depressive Disorder (MDD) is a costly public health problem, and the diagnostic heterogeneity of MDD complicates treatment. One approach is to study endophenotypes, key facets of MDD that may involve dysfunction in discrete neural circuits. Anhedonia (loss of pleasure) is a promising endophenotype, but the neurocognitive mechanisms underlying this core symptom of MDD are unclear. The current application would test the hypothesis that failures of stimulus-reward and action-reward learning contribute to anhedonia. During the two-year K99 phase, the applicant will pursue four aims. First, in order to develop quantitative hypotheses about how MDD affects reinforcement learning, he will learn computational modeling from Dr. Michael Frank (K99 co-mentor). With guidance from Dr. Frank and Dr. Diego Pizzagalli (K99 mentor), the K99 research funds will support collection of fMRI data from controls performing a rewarded Pavlovian conditioning task. This will lay the foundation for a study with MDD subjects in the R00 phase, while also providing valuable data that will be used to test temporal difference algorithms of reinforcement learning. To learn additional skills for the R00 phase, the applicant will also complete a semester-long ?Computational Cognitive Neuroscience?course offered by Dr. Frank. Second, Dr. Nicholas Lange will train the applicant to conduct diffusion tensor imaging analyses in order to probe the structural integrity and connectivity of brain regions implicated in memory and reward processing, and that may be degraded in MDD. Third, the applicant will pursue focused training in diagnostic interviewing, which will be invaluable when he transitions to independence and begins directing a laboratory focused on patient-oriented research. Fourth, with input from Dr. Pizzagalli and Dr. Frank, the applicant will develop an effective job talk and conduct a faculty job search in order to establish a laboratory focused on reward-related learning and memory in MDD. During the independent phase, three functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) studies of reward- related learning and memory in controls and MDD subjects will be conducted. The first study will focus on the ventral striatum and will use Pavlovian conditioning to examine effects of MDD on cue-reward contingency learning. The second study will focus on the dorsal striatum and will use instrumental conditioning to examine action-reward learning in MDD. The third study will involve explicit encoding of stimulus-reward associations, followed by delayed recall at two time-points, to investigate how MDD affects hippocampal-striatal interactions during encoding and consolidation of rewarding information. Finally, the MRI data from these studies will be pooled to determine whether anhedonia reflects weak functional or structural connections among the striatum, hippocampus, and regions of prefrontal cortex previously implicated in different facets of reward processing. The proposed combination of rigorous paradigms, computational models, and cutting-edge connectivity analyses has the potential to significantly advance understanding of the pathophysiology of MDD.

Public Health Relevance

Depression is a costly public health problem, and it is difficult to treat because its pathophysiology is not well- understood. Anhedonia is a key symptom of depression that refers to the loss of pleasure or lack of reactivity to pleasurable stimuli. The goal of this project is to investigate the neurocognitive mechanisms implicated in anhedonia, so that these can ultimately be targeted for treatment.

National Institute of Health (NIH)
National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH)
Research Transition Award (R00)
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Special Emphasis Panel (NSS)
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Chavez, Mark
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Mclean Hospital Coroporation
United States
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