Blunted Social Reward Responsiveness Moderates the Effect of Lifetime Social Stress Exposure on Depressive Symptoms
Shields, Grant S.
Slavich, George M.
Exposure to social stress is a well-established risk factor for the development and recurrence of depression. Reduced neural responsiveness to monetary reward has been associated with greater symptoms following stress exposure. However, it remains unclear whether reduced reward responsiveness serves as a mediator or moderator of the effects of stress on internalizing symptoms or whether similar patterns emerge with responses to social reward. We addressed this issue by measuring lifetime stress exposure and event-related potentials (ERPs) to social reward in 231 emerging adults (M = 18.16, SD = 0.41 years old). Participants completed the Stress and Adversity Inventory (STRAIN) to assess severity of lifetime stressors and self-report measures of current internalizing symptoms. In addition, participants completed the Island Getaway task in which the reward positivity (RewP) ERP was recorded in response to social acceptance, adjusting for responses to rejection (RewP residual). In this task, participants vote to accept or reject peers and receive reward/acceptance and rejection feedback. Stressors were divided into social and non-social stress severity scores. Analyses were conducted to test social reward responsiveness as a mediator or moderator of the effects of social and non-social stress on internalizing symptoms. Both social and non-social stress exposure over the life course predicted symptoms of depression (ps < 0.001) and social anxiety (ps < 0.002). The effect of social stress on depression was moderated by the residual RewP to social reward, adjusting for responses to social rejection (p = 0.024), such that greater lifetime social stress exposure and a relatively blunted RewP to social reward were associated with greater depressive symptoms. Social reward responsiveness did not mediate effects of stress on internalizing symptoms. Reduced processing of social reward may be a vulnerability for depression that increases risk for symptoms following exposure to social stress. Blunted social reward responsiveness appears to be a relatively unique vulnerability for depression, rather than social anxiety. Results support the utility of ERP measures in measuring individual differences in social reward processing that can be applied to better understand neural processes involved in the development of depression, and highlight the importance of considering specific dimensions of stressful life experiences.