Fearfulness moderates the link between childhood social withdrawal and adolescent reward response


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Abstract

Withdrawal from peers during childhood may reflect disruptions in reward functioning that heighten vulnerability to affective disorders during adolescence. The association between socially withdrawn behavior and reward functioning may depend on traits that influence this withdrawal, such as fearfulness or unsociability. In a study of 129 boys, we evaluated how boys’ fearfulness and sociability at age 5 and social withdrawal at school at ages 6 to 10 and during a summer camp at age 9/10 were associated with their neural response to reward at age 20. Greater social withdrawal during childhood was associated with heightened striatal and mPFC activation when anticipating rewards at age 20. Fearfulness moderated this effect to indicate that social withdrawal was associated with heightened reward-related response in the striatum for boys high on fearfulness. Altered striatal response associated with social withdrawal and fearfulness predicted greater likelihood to have a lifetime history of depression and social phobia at age 20. These findings add greater specificity to previous findings that children high in traits related to fear of novelty show altered reward responses, by identifying fearfulness (but not low levels of sociability) as a potential underlying mechanism that contributes to reward alterations in withdrawn children.

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