Enhanced subgenual cingulate response to altruistic decisions in remitted major depressive disorder.

Erdem Pulcu, Roland Zahn, Jorge Moll, Paula D Trotter, Emma J Thomas, Gabriella Juhasz, J F William Deakin, Ian M Anderson, Barbara J Sahakian, Rebecca Elliott

    Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


    BACKGROUND: Major depressive disorder (MDD) is associated with functional abnormalities in fronto-meso-limbic networks contributing to decision-making, affective and reward processing impairments. Such functional disturbances may underlie a tendency for enhanced altruism driven by empathy-based guilt observed in some patients. However, despite the relevance of altruistic decisions to understanding vulnerability, as well as everyday psychosocial functioning, in MDD, their functional neuroanatomy is unknown. METHODS: Using a charitable donations experiment with fMRI, we compared 14 medication-free participants with fully remitted MDD and 15 demographically-matched control participants without MDD. RESULTS: Compared with the control group, the remitted MDD group exhibited enhanced BOLD response in a septal/subgenual cingulate cortex (sgACC) region for charitable donation relative to receiving simple rewards and higher striatum activation for both charitable donation and simple reward relative to a low level baseline. The groups did not differ in demographics, frequency of donations or response times, demonstrating only a difference in neural architecture. CONCLUSIONS: We showed that altruistic decisions probe residual sgACC hypersensitivity in MDD even after symptoms are fully remitted. The sgACC has previously been shown to be associated with guilt which promotes altruistic decisions. In contrast, the striatum showed common activation to both simple and altruistic rewards and could be involved in the so-called "warm glow" of donation. Enhanced neural response in the depression group, in areas previously linked to altruistic decisions, supports the hypothesis of a possible association between hyper-altruism and depression vulnerability, as shown by recent epidemiological studies.
    Original languageEnglish
    JournalNeuroImage. Clinical
    Publication statusPublished - 2014


    • Charitable donation
    • Major depression
    • Reward processing
    • Striatum
    • Subgenual anterior cingulate


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