Background: Apathy can be defined as a reduction of goal-directed behavior and is a strong predictor for poor functional outcome in schizophrenia. However, no objective measure of apathy has been identified and assessment is limited to retrospective interview-based ratings. Here we aimed to identify more precise objective readouts of apathy for translational research and clinical practice.
Methods: We employed a combined approach including interview-based ratings of the two negative symptom factors apathy and diminished expression, actigraphy based measures of spontaneous motor activity and the evaluation of daily activities using ecological momentary assessment. Furthermore, a functional magnetic resonance imaging task for reward anticipation was applied to investigate shared and divergent neural correlates of interview-based and behaviorally measured apathy.
Results: We found in 18 schizophrenia patients with high interview-based apathy levels that motor activity was negatively correlated with apathy but not with diminished expression. In contrast, measures of daily activities were not associated with apathy. Neural activation during reward anticipation revealed an association between hypoactivation of the ventral striatum and interview-based apathy as well as hypoactivation of the inferior frontal gyrus and motor activity level.
Conclusions: Spontaneous motor activity is an objective readout of apathy, which was specific and not present for diminished expression. On a neural level, interview-based and objective measures of apathy showed divergent neural correlates in the cortical-striatal network, which suggests dissociable neural processes. Finally, motor activity provides a promising readout for quantifying apathy in both translational research and clinical practice.