Depression is a disabling disorder that significantly impacts on the interpersonal functioning of individuals. However, little is known about the neural substrates of such difficulties. In the last few years neuroeconomics, which combines imaging with multiplayer behavioural economic paradigms, has been used to study the neural substrates of normal and abnormal interpersonal interactions.
This study used functional magnetic resonance imaging to investigate neural activity in unmedicated depressed participants (n = 25) and matched healthy controls (n = 25). During scanning, participants played a behavioural economic game, the Prisoner's Dilemma. In this game, the participant and a co-player independently choose either to cooperate or not cooperate with each other.
Depressed participants reported higher levels of negative feelings (betrayal, guilt) during the game than did controls. Neural activation was compared between ‘imbalanced’ events [when one of the players cooperated and the other defected (‘CD’ and ‘DC’)] and ‘draw’ events [when both players either cooperated or defected (‘CC’ and ‘DD’)]. Participants preferentially activated the anterior insula and the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (DLPFC), a region implicated in cognitive control and regulation of emotions. Importantly, compared to controls depressed participants showed reduced activation in the left DLPFC, with the extent of signal reduction correlating with increased self-report feelings of guilt associated with DC outcomes.
Our findings suggest that depression is associated with reduced activation of the DLPFC during social events that involve unreciprocated cooperation. This abnormality may underlie anomalies in cognitive control and top-down regulation of emotions during challenging social exchanges.