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Keywords:

  • Anhedonia;
  • cortisol;
  • depression;
  • endophenotype;
  • gene;
  • glucocorticoid;
  • HPA;
  • mineralocorticoid;
  • reward;
  • stress

Research suggests that stress disrupts reinforcement learning and induces anhedonia. The mineralocorticoid receptor (MR) determines the sensitivity of the stress response, and the missense iso/val polymorphism (Ile180Val, rs5522) of the MR gene (NR3C2) has been associated with enhanced physiological stress responses, elevated depressive symptoms and reduced cortisol-induced MR gene expression. The goal of these studies was to evaluate whether rs5522 genotype and stress independently and interactively influence reward learning. In study 1, participants (n = 174) completed a probabilistic reward task under baseline (i.e. no-stress) conditions. In study 2, participants (n = 53) completed the task during a stress (threat-of-shock) and no-stress condition. Reward learning, i.e. the ability to modulate behavior as a function of reinforcement history, was the main variable of interest. In study 1, in which participants were evaluated under no-stress conditions, reward learning was enhanced in val carriers. In study 2, participants developed a weaker response bias toward a more frequently rewarded stimulus under the stress relative to no-stress condition. Critically, stress-induced reward learning deficits were largest in val carriers. Although preliminary and in need of replication due to small sample size, findings indicate that psychiatrically healthy individuals carrying the MR val allele, gene, which has been recently linked to depression, showed a reduced ability to modulate behavior as a function of reward when facing an acute, uncontrollable stressor. Future studies are warranted to evaluate whether rs5522 genotype interacts with naturalistic stressors to increase the risk of depression and whether stress-induced anhedonia might moderate such risk.