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Bidirectional Associations Between Stress and Reward Processing in Children and Adolescents: A Longitudinal Neuroimaging Study

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Pablo Vidal-Ribas, Brenda Benson, Aria D. Vitale, Hanna Keren, Anita Harrewijn, Nathan A. Fox, Daniel S. Pine, Argyris Stringaris

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)893-901
Number of pages9
JournalBiological Psychiatry: Cognitive Neuroscience and Neuroimaging
Issue number10
Publication statusPublished - 1 Oct 2019

King's Authors


Background: Aberrations in both neural reward processing and stress reactivity are associated with increased risk for mental illness; yet, how these two factors relate to each other remains unclear. Several studies suggest that stress exposure impacts reward function, thus increasing risk for psychopathology. However, the alternative hypothesis, in which reward dysfunction impacts stress reactivity, has been rarely examined. The current study aimed to test both hypotheses using a longitudinal design. Methods: Participants were 38 children (23 girls; 61%) from a prospective cohort study. A standard stress-exposure measure was collected at 7 years of age. Children performed a well-validated imaging reward paradigm at age 10, and a standardized acute psychological stress laboratory protocol was administered both at age 10 and at age 13. Structural equation modeling was used to examine bidirectional associations between stress and neural response to reward anticipation. Results: Higher exposure to stressful life events at age 7 predicted lower neural response to reward anticipation in regions of the basal ganglia at age 10, which included ventral caudate, nucleus accumbens, putamen, and globus pallidus. Lower response to reward anticipation in medial prefrontal and anterior cingulate cortex predicted higher stress reactivity at age 13. Conclusions: Our findings provide support for bidirectional associations between stress and reward processing, in that stress may impact reward anticipation, but also in that reduced reward anticipation may increase susceptibility to stress.

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