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BACKGROUND: Learning from rewarded and punished choices is perturbed in depressed patients, suggesting that abnormal reinforcement learning may be a cognitive mechanism of the illness. However, previous studies have disagreed about whether this behavior is produced by alterations in the rate of learning or sensitivity to experienced outcomes. This previous work has generally assessed learning in response to binary outcomes of one valence, rather than to both rewarding and punishing continuous outcomes. METHODS: A novel drifting reward and punishment magnitude reinforcement-learning task was administered to patients with current (n = 40) and remitted depression (n = 39), and healthy volunteers (n = 40) to capture potential differences in learning behavior. Standard questionnaires were administered to measure self-reported depressive symptom severity, trait and state anxiety and level of anhedonic symptoms. RESULTS: Our findings demonstrate that patients with current depression adjust their learning behaviors to a lesser degree in response to trial-by-trial variations in reward and loss magnitudes than the other groups. Computational modeling revealed that this behavioral signature of current depressive state is better accounted for by reduced reward and punishment sensitivity (all p < 0.031), rather than a change in learning rate (p = 0.708). However, between-group differences were not related to self-reported symptom severity or comorbid anxiety disorders in the current depression group. CONCLUSION: These findings suggest that current depression is associated with reduced outcome sensitivity rather than altered learning rate. Previous findings reported in this domain mainly from binary learning tasks seem to generalize to learning from continuous outcomes.

Original publication




Journal article


Psychol Med

Publication Date



1 - 6


Affective bias, computational modeling, depression, reinforcement learning, reward sensitivity