Does Reward Responsivity Moderate or Mediate Effects of Parental Depression on Offspring?

Panayiota Siskos 2023

Figure 1: Depression alters the reward responsivity, and is described as having less tendency to adjust behavior or put in effort for rewards.

Depression has alterations in reward responsiveness constructs with subjective experiences of pleasure and neural activation for rewarding. Alterations may be assessed with neurophysiological measures including reward positivity event-related potential which correlates with positive emotionality in kids, behavioral, and self-report measures of reward sensitivity with older adults and young adults. There is evidence of children with depressed mothers have reward responsiveness abnormalities, and previously in a large sample never-depressed children of depressed mothers with no comorbid anxiety had blunted reward positivity than those with nondepressed mothers. One possibility is reduced reward responsiveness can moderate the association so that greatest risk presents with other factors. A different possibility is reward responsiveness can be a mechanism of integrational transmission for depression so offspring with depressed parents are more likely to have reduced reward responsiveness that lends to depression. The study’s primary goal was examining if reward responsiveness moderates or mediates parental depression effects on offspring depressive symptom changes during late childhood to early adolescence, and the second goal was testing if neurophysiological and self-report indicators of reward response has similar patterns and if every measure has unique depressive symptom variance.

         Children of 3 or 6 years old were recruited, and their biological parents completed a semi structured interview assessing depression histories, and at 9 years old children came back to the lab for an EEG assessment and parents had an interview assessing psychopathology from initial evaluation. At 12 years old adolescents had self-report measures of reward responsiveness and depressive symptoms.

         There was significant correlation between effects of reward responsiveness with maternal depression, and maternal depression had more depressive symptoms with youth that had blunted and average reward positivity. However, it was not a significant predictor of youth that had enhanced reward positivity. Self-reported reward responsiveness had a similar pattern. Both reward response measures did not correlate with one another and symptoms had unique variance. Reward response and paternal depression interactions were insignificant. Research is required to evaluate reward response utility as target intervention as well as if it is modifiable with parenting or child-focused interventions. In addition, more longitudinal work is needed to test if associations with self-report measures of reward responsiveness might not emerge until later adolescence. Depression rates in the sample were low and brings questions of generalizability to clinical disorders, and subthreshold symptoms should be strong predictors of later depressive disorder development and follow-up data will allow exploration of this through adolescence.

Works Cited:

[1] A. Kujawa, et al., Reduced reward responsiveness moderates the effect of maternal depression on depressive symptoms in offspring: evidence across levels of analysis. The Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry 60, (2018). doi:

[2] Image retrieved from


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