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Classic theories posit that depression is driven by a negative learning bias. Most studies supporting this proposition used small and selected samples, excluding patients with comorbidities. However, comorbidity between psychiatric disorders occurs in up to 70% of the population. Therefore, the generalizability of the negative bias hypothesis to a naturalistic psychiatric sample as well as the specificity of the bias to depression, remain unclear. In the present study, we tested the negative learning bias hypothesis in a large naturalistic sample of psychiatric patients, including depression, anxiety, addiction, attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, and/or autism. First, we assessed whether the negative bias hypothesis of depression generalized to a heterogeneous (and hence more naturalistic) depression sample compared with controls. Second, we assessed whether negative bias extends to other psychiatric disorders. Third, we adopted a dimensional approach, by using symptom severity as a way to assess associations across the sample.
We administered a probabilistic reversal learning task to 217 patients and 81 healthy controls. According to the negative bias hypothesis, participants with depression should exhibit enhanced learning and flexibility based on punishment v. reward. We combined analyses of traditional measures with more sensitive computational modeling.
In contrast to previous findings, this sample of depressed patients with psychiatric comorbidities did not show a negative learning bias.
These results speak against the generalizability of the negative learning bias hypothesis to depressed patients with comorbidities. This study highlights the importance of investigating unselected samples of psychiatric patients, which represent the vast majority of the psychiatric population.
It has been suggested that some psychotic symptoms reflect ‘aberrant salience’, related to dysfunctional reward learning. To test this hypothesis we investigated whether patients with schizophrenia showed impaired learning of task-relevant stimulus–reinforcement associations in the presence of distracting task-irrelevant cues.
We tested 20 medicated patients with schizophrenia and 17 controls on a reaction time game, the Salience Attribution Test. In this game, participants made a speeded response to earn money in the presence of conditioned stimuli (CSs). Each CS comprised two visual dimensions, colour and form. Probability of reinforcement varied over one of these dimensions (task-relevant), but not the other (task-irrelevant). Measures of adaptive and aberrant motivational salience were calculated on the basis of latency and subjective reinforcement probability rating differences over the task-relevant and task-irrelevant dimensions respectively.
Participants rated reinforcement significantly more likely and responded significantly faster on high-probability-reinforced relative to low-probability-reinforced trials, representing adaptive motivational salience. Patients exhibited reduced adaptive salience relative to controls, but the two groups did not differ in terms of aberrant salience. Patients with delusions exhibited significantly greater aberrant salience than those without delusions, and aberrant salience also correlated with negative symptoms. In the controls, aberrant salience correlated significantly with ‘introvertive anhedonia’ schizotypy.
These data support the hypothesis that aberrant salience is related to the presence of delusions in medicated patients with schizophrenia, but are also suggestive of a link with negative symptoms. The relationship between aberrant salience and psychotic symptoms warrants further investigation in unmedicated patients.
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