Amygdala and nucleus accumbens in responses to receipt and omission of gains in adults and adolescents

Adolescents' propensity for risk-taking and reward-seeking behaviors suggests a heightened sensitivity for reward, reflected by greater feedback-related activity changes in reward circuitry (e.g., nucleus accumbens), and/or a lower sensitivity to potential harm reflected by weaker feedback-related activity changes in avoidance circuitry (e.g., amygdala) relative to adults. Responses of nucleus accumbens and amygdala to valenced outcomes (reward receipt and reward omission) were assayed using an event-related functional magnetic resonance imaging procedure paired with a monetary reward task in 14 adults and 16 adolescents. Bilateral amygdala and nucleus accumbens showed significantly greater activation when winning than when failing to win in both groups. Group comparisons revealed stronger activation of left nucleus accumbens by adolescents, and of left amygdala by adults. When examining responses to reward receipts and to reward omissions separately, the most robust group difference was within the amygdala during reward omission. The reduction of the fMRI BOLD signal in the amygdala in response to reward omission was larger for adults than for adolescents. Correlations showed a close link between negative emotion and amygdala decreased BOLD signal in adults, and between positive emotion and nucleus accumbens activation in adolescents. Overall, these findings support the notion that the signal differences between positive and negative outcomes involve the nucleus accumbens more in adolescents than in adults, and the amygdala more in adults than in adolescents. These developmental differences, if replicated, may have important implications for the development of early-onset disorders of emotion and motivation.