Depression is a highly prevalent condition with devastating personal and public health consequences that often first manifests during adolescence. Though extensively studied, the pathogenesis of depression remains poorly understood, and efforts to stratify risks and identify optimal interventions have proceeded slowly. A major impediment has been the reliance on an all-or-nothing categorical diagnostic scheme based solely on whether a patient endorses an arbitrary number of common symptoms for a sufficiently long period. This approach masks the well-documented heterogeneity of depression, a disorder that is highly variable in presentation, severity, and course between individuals and is frequently comorbid with other psychiatric conditions. In this targeted review, we outline the limitations of traditional diagnosis-based research and instead advocate an alternative approach centered around symptoms as unique dimensions of clinical dysfunction that span across disorders and more closely reflect underlying neurobiological abnormalities. In particular, we highlight anhedonia—the reduced ability to anticipate and experience pleasure—as a specific, quantifiable index of reward dysfunction and an ideal candidate for dimensional investigation. Anhedonia is a core symptom of depression but also a salient feature of numerous other conditions, and its severity varies widely within clinical and even healthy populations. Similarly, reward dysfunction is a hallmark of depression but is evident across many psychiatric conditions. Reward function is especially relevant in adolescence, a period characterized by exaggerated reward-seeking behaviors and rapid maturation of neural reward circuitry. We detail extensive work by our research group and others to investigate the neural and systemic factors contributing to reward dysfunction in youth, including our cumulative findings using multiple neuroimaging and immunological measures to study depressed adolescents but also trans-diagnostic cohorts with diverse psychiatric symptoms. We describe convergent evidence that reward dysfunction: (a) predicts worse clinical outcomes, (b) is associated with functional and chemical abnormalities within and beyond the neural reward circuitry, (c) is linked to elevated peripheral levels of inflammatory biomarkers, and (d) manifests early in the course of illness. Emphasis is placed on high-resolution neuroimaging techniques, comprehensive immunological assays, and data-driven analyses to fully capture and characterize the complex, interconnected nature of these systems and their contributions to adolescent reward dysfunction.
- mood disorders