Abnormal approach-related motivation but spared reinforcement learning in MDD: Evidence from fronto-midline Theta oscillations and frontal Alpha asymmetry

  • Davide GhezaEmail author
  • Jasmina Bakic
  • Chris Baeken
  • Rudi De Raedt
  • Gilles Pourtois
Special Issue/Reward Systems, Cognition,and Emotion


Major depression is characterized by abnormal reward processing and reinforcement learning (RL). This impairment might stem from deficient motivation processes, in addition to reduced reward sensitivity. In this study, we recorded 64-channel EEG in a large cohort of major depressive disorder (MDD) patients and matched healthy controls (HC) while they performed a standard RL task. Participants were asked to discover, by trial and error, several hidden stimulus-response associations having different reward probabilities, as enforced using evaluative feedback. We extracted induced fronto-midline Theta (FMT) power time-locked to the response and feedback as neurophysiological index of RL. Furthermore, we assessed approach-related motivation by measuring frontal alpha asymmetry concurrently. At the behavioral level, MDD patients and HCs showed comparable RL. At the EEG level, FMT power systematically varied as a function of reward probability, with opposing effects found at the response and feedback levels. Although this global pattern was spared in MDD, at the feedback level these patients showed however a steep FMT power decrease across trials when reward probability was low. Moreover, they showed impaired approach-related motivation during task execution, as reflected by frontal Alpha asymmetry. These results suggest a dissociation between (globally spared) RL and (impaired) approach motivation in MDD.


Anhedonia Reinforcement learning Fronto-midline Theta Medial frontal cortex Reward prediction error 



The authors thank Ivan Grahek for the guidance in performing and reporting the BMLM statistical analysis and Ladislas Nalborczyk for further support with its implementation.


RDR, CB, and GP are funded by a Concerted Research Action Grant from Ghent University. GP is supported by a 2015 NARSAD Independent Investigator Grant from the Brain & Behavior Research Foundation and by the Research Foundation Flanders (FWO, grant number 3G024716).

Compliance with ethical standards

Conflict of interest

The authors declare that they have no conflict of interest.

Ethical approval

All procedures performed in studies involving human participants were in accordance with the ethical standards of the institutional and/or national research committee and with the 1964 Helsinki declaration and its later amendments or comparable ethical standards.

Informed consent

Informed consent was obtained from all individual participants included in the study.

Supplementary material

13415_2019_693_MOESM1_ESM.pdf (964 kb)
ESM 1 (PDF 963 kb)


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© The Psychonomic Society, Inc. 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Cognitive and Affective Psychophysiology Laboratory, Department of Experimental Clinical & Health PsychologyGhent UniversityGhentBelgium
  2. 2.Department of Psychiatry and Medical PsychologyGhent University, Universitair ZiekenhuisGhentBelgium
  3. 3.Department of PsychiatryUniversity Hospital (UZBrussel)BrusselsBelgium
  4. 4.Ghent Experimental Psychiatry (GHEP) labGhent UniversityGhentBelgium
  5. 5.Psychopathology and Affective Neuroscience Laboratory, Department of Experimental Clinical & Health PsychologyGhent UniversityGhentBelgium

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