BACKGROUND: Changes in reflexive emotional responses are hallmarks of depression, but how emotional reflexes make an impact on adaptive decision-making in depression has not been examined formally. Using a Pavlovian-instrumental transfer (PIT) task, we compared the influence of affectively valenced stimuli on decision-making in depression and generalized anxiety disorder compared with healthy controls; and related this to the longitudinal course of the illness.
METHOD: A total of 40 subjects with a current DSM-IV-TR diagnosis of major depressive disorder, dysthymia, generalized anxiety disorder, or a combination thereof, and 40 matched healthy controls performed a PIT task that assesses how instrumental approach and withdrawal behaviours are influenced by appetitive and aversive Pavlovian conditioned stimuli (CSs). Patients were followed up after 4-6 months. Analyses focused on patients with depression alone (n = 25).
RESULTS: In healthy controls, Pavlovian CSs exerted action-specific effects, with appetitive CSs boosting active approach and aversive CSs active withdrawal. This action-specificity was absent in currently depressed subjects. Greater action-specificity in patients was associated with better recovery over the follow-up period.
CONCLUSIONS: Depression is associated with an abnormal influence of emotional reactions on decision-making in a way that may predict recovery.