'Teaching Joy' Is A New Approach In The Battle Against Anhedonia | KERA News

'Teaching Joy' Is A New Approach In The Battle Against Anhedonia

May 9, 2019

People who find themselves unable to experience delight or satisfaction may be suffering from something called anhedonia, a symptom of depression that strips people of their ability to feel joy.

Professors at Southern Methodist University are part of a five-year study aiming to develop a more effective treatment.

Alicia Meuret has described her team's novel approach as training people "to develop psychological muscle memory, to learn again how to experience joy and identify that experience when it occurs."

She and Thomas Ritz answered our questions about anhedonia and about the study, which will measure the effectiveness of their treatment in over 160 people suffering from the condition.

What anhedonia is

Anhedonia is the deficit in positive affect — the loss of enjoyment in and desire for pleasurable activities.

In essence, it's the inability to either foresee, anticipate, to become motivated for or to actually experience pleasure from activities that a person has previously experienced as pleasurable. 

On the extent of anhedonia's impact

It goes pretty far. We think that the basis of it is some kind of dysregulation of neuro-biological systems.

[Because] those particular systems involve areas of the brain that are dysregulated, that has a very broad effect on behavior. That doesn't just affect the experience of pleasure but also affects the seeking of pleasure. We call it reward sensitivity.

Systems that coordinate these experiences and activities include multiple neuro-physiological systems, including particular areas of the brain, and we think the dysregulation of that has a very broad effect. 

What happens to people with anhedonia in the long run

Multiple things can happen.

» They can become very depressed. When we think about depression, we think about an increase in negative affect — they feel down and depressed.

» They have a lot of somatic symptoms. They're unable to sleep, they may have had an increase or decrease in appetite, have difficulties concentrating.

» It can really go along with a sense of hopelessness, and it's not a coincidence that anhedonia is strongly linked to suicidal behaviors, or suicide in and of itself. At its very severest form, the person is somewhat giving up the hope that anything in their life can ever be enjoyable or makes sense or has meaning and is worth actually pursuing.

How the new treatment works

We designed a study, an intervention, that we believe taps into the three components of reward sensitivity — or lack of thereof:

1. Reward anticipation and motivation: That means the wanting of a reward.

2. Reward consumption: That's the liking of a reward.

3. Reward learning: That's about understanding the association between wanting and liking.

Alicia Meuret and Thomas Ritz's interview answers were lightly edited for this article. Hear the full interview above.