Lithium is one of the most effective mood-stabilizing medications in bipolar disorder. This study was designed to test whether lithium administration may stabilize mood via effects on reward processing. It was hypothesized that lithium administration would modulate reward processing in the striatum and affect both anticipation and outcome computations. Thirty-seven healthy human participants (18 males, 33 with suitable fMRI data) received 11 (±1) days of lithium carbonate or placebo intervention (double-blind), after which they completed the monetary incentive delay task while fMRI data were collected. The monetary incentive delay task is a robust task with excellent test-retest reliability and is well suited to investigate different phases of reward processing within the caudate and nucleus accumbens. To test for correlations with prediction error signals a Rescorla-Wagner reinforcement-learning model was applied. Lithium administration enhanced activity in the caudate during reward anticipation compared to placebo. In contrast, lithium administration reduced caudate and nucleus accumbens activity during reward outcome. This latter effect seems related to learning as reward prediction errors showed a positive correlation with caudate and nucleus accumbens activity during placebo, which was absent after lithium administration. Lithium differentially modulates the anticipation relative to the learning of rewards. This suggests that lithium might reverse dampened reward anticipation while reducing overactive reward updating in patients with bipolar disorder. This specific effect of lithium suggests that a targeted modulation of reward learning may be a viable approach for novel interventions in bipolar disorder.
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