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105. Reduced neural signaling of subjective value is related to early socioeconomic status and depressive symptomatology during adolescence
Childhood exposure to poverty and the stressors associated with lower socioeconomic status (SES) is associated with increased rates of psychopathology in adolescence and adulthood. This has been replicated for both internalizing and externalizing disorders, but the pathways linking poverty to different forms of psychopathology are still poorly understood. Independent of SES, research has indicated that neural alterations in reward processing and decision-making brain circuitry are implicated in the developmental emergence and etiology of depression. For example, multiple studies indicate that individuals with major depression demonstrate reduced activation in portions of the striatum, as well as sub-divisions of the prefrontal cortex. Interestingly, exposure to childhood poverty has been associated with structural and functional differences in the prefrontal cortex, specifically the ventromedial prefrontal cortex (vmPFC). Limited investigations have, however, attempted to link these disconnected, but related, strands of research by investigating exposure to poverty, brain activity related to decision-making, and psychopathology. Here, as part of an ongoing longitudinal project focused on parenting practices and child development, a subsample of adolescent participants was administered a neuroimaging task to address this gap in understanding (total N=94; usable N=78). Participants (mean age=15.4 years) completed a passive avoidance learning task while undergoing functional MRI. A computational neuroimaging approach was employed to identify neural regions representing 1) expected value (EV), the learned subjective value of an object, and 2) prediction error, the difference between EV and the actual reward/punishment received. Regions of interest related to reward processing and decision-making (e.g., the ventral striatum; vmPFC), were examined in connection to socioeconomic status, as well as parental reports of youth depressive symptoms. In line with past research, and as predicted, we found lower socioeconomic status was related to reduced representation of EV in the vmPFC during decision-making portions of the task (β=-0.443, p=0.008). With respect to psychopathology, we found lower activity in the vmPFC was related to symptoms of depression assessed 2 years after the neuroimaging session (β=-0.246, p=0.03). These results represent an important first step in understanding connections between exposure to poverty, psychopathology, and brain changes in reward and decision-making circuitry. Further mechanistic clarification is crucial for predicting, preventing, and treating mental health difficulties across the SES spectrum.