Patients with small vessel cerebrovascular disease frequently suffer from apathy, a debilitating neuropsychiatric syndrome, the underlying mechanisms of which remain to be established. Here we investigated the hypothesis that apathy is associated with disrupted decision making in effort-based decision making, and that these alterations are associated with abnormalities in the white matter network connecting brain regions that underpin such decisions. Eighty-two patients with MRI evidence of small vessel disease were assessed using a behavioural paradigm as well as diffusion weighted MRI. The decision-making task involved accepting or rejecting monetary rewards in return for performing different levels of physical effort (hand grip force). Choice data and reaction times were integrated into a drift diffusion model that framed decisions to accept or reject offers as stochastic processes approaching a decision boundary with a particular drift rate. Tract-based spatial statistics were used to assess the relationship between white matter tract integrity and apathy, while accounting for depression. Overall, patients with apathy accepted significantly fewer offers on this decision-making task. Notably, while apathetic patients were less responsive to low rewards, they were also significantly averse to investing in high effort. Significant reductions in white matter integrity were observed to be specifically related to apathy, but not to depression. These included pathways connecting brain regions previously implicated in effort-based decision making in healthy people. The drift rate to decision parameter was significantly associated with both apathy and altered white matter tracts, suggesting that both brain and behavioural changes in apathy are associated with this single parameter. On the other hand, depression was associated with an increase in the decision boundary, consistent with an increase in the amount of evidence required prior to making a decision. These findings demonstrate altered effort-based decision making for reward in apathy, and also highlight dissociable mechanisms underlying apathy and depression in small vessel disease. They provide clear potential brain and behavioural targets for future therapeutic interventions, as well as modelling parameters that can be used to measure the effects of treatment at the behavioural level.
apathy, cerebrovascular small vessel disease, decision-making, drift diffusion model, reward