Striatal and Behavioral Responses to Reward Vary by Socioeconomic Status in Adolescents (2024)


Disparities in socioeconomic status (SES) lead to unequal access to financial and social support. These disparities are believed to influence reward sensitivity, which in turn are hypothesized to shape how individuals respond to and pursue rewarding experiences. However, surprisingly little is known about how SES shapes reward sensitivity in adolescence. Here, we investigated how SES influenced adolescent responses to reward, both in behavior and the striatum—a brain region that is highly sensitive to reward. We examined responses to both immediate reward (tracked by phasic dopamine) and average reward rate fluctuations (tracked by tonic dopamine) as these distinct signals independently shape learning and motivation. Adolescents (n = 114; 12–14 years; 58 female) performed a gambling task during functional magnetic resonance imaging. We manipulated trial-by-trial reward and loss outcomes, leading to fluctuations between periods of reward scarcity and abundance. We found that a higher reward rate hastened behavioral responses, and increased guess switching, consistent with the idea that reward abundance increases response vigor and exploration. Moreover, immediate reward reinforced previously rewarding decisions (win–stay, lose–switch) and slowed responses (postreward pausing), particularly when rewards were scarce. Notably, lower-SES adolescents slowed down less after rare rewards than higher-SES adolescents. In the brain, striatal activations covaried with the average reward rate across time and showed greater activations during rewarding blocks. However, these striatal effects were diminished in lower-SES adolescents. These findings show that the striatum tracks reward rate fluctuations, which shape decisions and motivation. Moreover, lower SES appears to attenuate reward-driven behavioral and brain responses.

In Journal of Neuroscience
Alexandra Decker
Postdoctoral Fellow, Massachusetts Institute of Technology

I research why attention fluctuates and how these fluctuations influence different learning and memory systems, such as probabilistic learning and episodic memory.