Skip to main content Accessibility help

Approach and avoidance learning in patients with major depression and healthy controls: relation to anhedonia

  • H. W. Chase (a1) (a2), M. J. Frank (a3), A. Michael (a4), E. T. Bullmore (a1) (a5), B. J. Sahakian (a1) (a6) and T. W. Robbins (a1) (a2)...



Central to understanding of the behavioural consequences of depression has been the theory that the disorder is accompanied by an increased sensitivity to negative compared with positive reinforcement (negative bias), whereas other theorists have emphasized a global reduction in sensitivity to reinforcement in depression (blunting).


In this study, we used a probabilistic selection task that was designed to examine independently rates of learning to predict both positive and negative reinforcement. Twenty-three depressed out-patients and 23 healthy controls from the local population participated in the study.


No evidence for a negative bias was observed on the task, either during acquisition of the task or during generalization of the learned information. Depressed patients responded slower on the task than controls but showed a similar modulation of reaction times (RTs) as controls following reinforcement. Evidence for blunting was observed on the training phase, as reflected in reduced trial-by-trial adjustment during this phase. However, this effect was related specifically to the severity of anhedonia, as measured by the Snaith–Hamilton Pleasure Scale (SHAPS), and was independent of overall depression severity.


We argue that the observation of a negative bias or blunting in a group of depressed patients may be dependent on the neuropsychological task and the symptoms of the patients tested. Our results provide insight into how these theories might be further tested.


Corresponding author

*Address for correspondence: Dr H. W. Chase, School of Psychology, University Park, University of Nottingham, Nottingham NG7 2RD, UK. (Email:


Hide All
Azorin, JM, Benhaim, P, Hasbroucq, T, Possamai, CA (1995). Stimulus preprocessing and response selection in depression: a reaction time study. Acta Psychologica 89, 95–100.
Beats, BC, Sahakian, BJ, Levy, R (1996). Cognitive performance in tests sensitive to frontal lobe dysfunction in the elderly depressed. Psychological Medicine 26, 591603.
Beck, AT (1967). Depression: Clinical, Experimental, and Theoretical Aspects. Harper & Row: New York.
Black, KJ, Hershey, T, Hartlein, JM, Carl, JL, Perlmutter, JS (2005). Levodopa challenge neuroimaging of levodopa-related mood fluctuations in Parkinson's disease. Neuropsychopharmacology 30, 590601.
Chamberlain, SR, Muller, U, Blackwell, AD, Clark, L, Robbins, TW, Sahakian, BJ (2006). Neurochemical modulation of response inhibition and probabilistic learning in humans. Science 311, 861863.
Chiu, PH, Deldin, PJ (2007). Neural evidence for enhanced error detection in major depressive disorder. American Journal of Psychiatry 164, 608616.
Cools, R, Altamirano, L, D'Esposito, M (2006). Reversal learning in Parkinson's disease depends on medication status and outcome valence. Neuropsychologia 44, 16631673.
Cools, R, Barker, RA, Sahakian, BJ, Robbins, TW (2001). Enhanced or impaired cognitive function in Parkinson's disease as a function of dopaminergic medication and task demands. Cerebral Cortex 11, 11361143.
Costello, CG (1972). Depression: a loss of reinforcement or loss of reinforcer effectiveness? Behavior Therapy 3, 240247.
Elliott, R, Sahakian, BJ, Herrod, JJ, Robbins, TW, Paykel, ES (1997). Abnormal response to negative feedback in unipolar depression: evidence for a diagnosis specific impairment. Journal of Neurology, Neurosurgery and Psychiatry 63, 7482.
Elliott, R, Sahakian, BJ, Michael, A, Paykel, ES, Dolan, RJ (1998). Abnormal neural response to feedback on planning and guessing tasks in patients with unipolar depression. Psychological Medicine 28, 559571.
Frank, MJ (2005). Dynamic dopamine modulation in the basal ganglia: a neurocomputational account of cognitive deficits in medicated and nonmedicated Parkinsonism. Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience 17, 5172.
Frank, MJ, Moustafa, AA, Haughey, HM, Curran, T, Hutchison, KE (2007). Genetic triple dissociation reveals multiple roles for dopamine in reinforcement learning. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA 104, 1631116316.
Frank, MJ, Seeberger, LC, O'Reilly, RC (2004). By carrot or by stick: cognitive reinforcement learning in parkinsonism. Science 306, 19401943.
Henriques, JB, Glowacki, JM, Davidson, RJ (1994). Reward fails to alter response bias in depression. Journal of Abnormal Psychology 103, 460466.
Holroyd, CB, Coles, MG (2002). The neural basis of human error processing: reinforcement learning, dopamine, and the error-related negativity. Psychological Review 109, 679709.
Kumar, P, Waiter, G, Ahearn, T, Milders, M, Reid, I, Steele, JD (2008). Abnormal temporal difference reward-learning signals in major depression. Brain 131, 20842093.
Leventhal, AM, Chasson, GS, Tapia, E, Miller, EK, Pettit, JW (2006). Measuring hedonic capacity in depression: a psychometric analysis of three anhedonia scales. Journal of Clinical Psychology 62, 15451558.
Lloyd, GG, Lishman, WA (1975). Effect of depression on the speed of recall of pleasant and unpleasant experiences. Psychological Medicine 5, 173180.
Luu, P, Collins, P, Tucker, DM (2000). Mood, personality, and self-monitoring: negative affect and emotionality in relation to frontal lobe mechanisms of error monitoring. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General 129, 4360.
Murphy, FC, Michael, A, Robbins, TW, Sahakian, BJ (2003). Neuropsychological impairment in patients with major depressive disorder: the effects of feedback on task performance. Psychological Medicine 33, 455467.
Nelson, RE, Craighead, WE (1977). Selective recall of positive and negative feedback, self-control behaviors, and depression. Journal of Abnormal Psychology 86, 379388.
Nelson, H, Willison, J (1991). National Adult Reading Test (NART) Test Manual. NFER-Nelson: Windsor, UK.
Nestler, EJ, Carlezon, WA Jr. (2006). The mesolimbic dopamine reward circuit in depression. Biological Psychiatry 59, 11511159.
Pizzagalli, DA, Jahn, AL, O'Shea, JP (2005). Toward an objective characterization of an anhedonic phenotype: a signal-detection approach. Biological Psychiatry 57, 319327.
Steele, JD, Kumar, P, Ebmeier, KP (2007). Blunted response to feedback information in depressive illness. Brain 130, 23672374.
Swainson, R, Rogers, RD, Sahakian, BJ, Summers, BA, Polkey, CE, Robbins, TW (2000). Probabilistic learning and reversal deficits in patients with Parkinson's disease or frontal or temporal lobe lesions: possible adverse effects of dopaminergic medication. Neuropsychologia 38, 596612.
Taylor Tavares, JV, Clark, L, Furey, ML, Williams, GB, Sahakian, BJ, Drevets, WC (2008). Neural basis of abnormal response to negative feedback in unmedicated mood disorders. Neuroimage 42, 11181126.
Tremblay, LK, Naranjo, CA, Cardenas, L, Herrmann, N, Busto, UE (2002). Probing brain reward system function in major depressive disorder: altered response to dextroamphetamine. Archives of General Psychiatry 59, 409416.
Tremblay, LK, Naranjo, CA, Graham, SJ, Herrmann, N, Mayberg, HS, Hevenor, S, Busto, UE (2005). Functional neuroanatomical substrates of altered reward processing in major depressive disorder revealed by a dopaminergic probe. Archives of General Psychiatry 62, 12281236.
Watson, D, Clark, LA, Carey, G (1988). Positive and negative affectivity and their relation to anxiety and depressive disorders. Journal of Abnormal Psychology 97, 346353.


Type Description Title
Supplementary materials

Chase supplementary material
Data and figure.doc

 Word (80 KB)
80 KB


Full text views

Total number of HTML views: 0
Total number of PDF views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

Abstract views

Total abstract views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

* Views captured on Cambridge Core between <date>. This data will be updated every 24 hours.

Usage data cannot currently be displayed