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The study included 15- and 16-year-olds who were given three types of tasks: give money to others, keep the money for themselves or take financial risks with the hope of earning a reward.
The researchers monitored activity levels in a brain area called the ventral striatum, which controls feelings of pleasure linked to rewards. The teens were checked for symptoms of depression at the start of the study and a year later.
Activity in the ventral striatum in response to the different types of rewards predicted whether the teens would have an increase or decrease in depression symptoms, according to the study published online recently in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
"If they show higher levels of reward activation in the ventral striatum in the context of the risk-taking task, they show increases in depressive symptoms over time. And if they show higher reward activation in the pro-social context, they show declines in depression," study author Eva Telzer, a psychology professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, said in a university news release.
"This study suggests that if we can somehow redirect adolescents away from risk-taking or self-centered rewards and toward engaging in these more pro-social behaviors, then perhaps that can have a positive impact on their well-being over time," she added.
Previous research has shown that teens tend to have higher levels of ventral striatum activity, suggesting that they experience the pleasure of rewards more intensely than adults or younger children, according to the news release. Most of that research has focused on the link between ventral striatum activity and risk-taking by teens.
This study shows that ventral striatum activity may also have a positive effect in teens, Telzer said.
-- Robert Preidt
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SOURCE: University of Illinois, news release April 24, 2014