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On Our Minds is the name of KERA's mental health news initiative. The station began focusing on the issue in 2013, after the mass shooting in Newtown, Connecticut. Coverage is funded in part by the Donna Wilhelm Family Fund and Cigna.

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

"There's a sense of hopelessness and it's not a coincidence that anhedonia is strongly linked to suicidal behaviors and suicide in and of itself because at its very severest form the person in essence is somewhat giving up."
Alicia Meuret, SMU
/
Shutterstock
"There's a sense of hopelessness and it's not a coincidence that anhedonia is strongly linked to suicidal behaviors and suicide in and of itself because at its very severest form the person in essence is somewhat giving up."

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.

Justin Martin is KERA’s local host of All Things Considered, anchoring afternoon newscasts for KERA 90.1. Justin grew up in Mannheim, Germany, and avidly listened to the Voice of America and National Public Radio whenever stateside. He graduated from the American Broadcasting School, and further polished his skills with radio veteran Kris Anderson of the Mighty 690 fame, a 50,000 watt border-blaster operating out of Tijuana, Mexico. Justin has worked as holiday anchor for the USA Radio Network, serving the U.S. Armed Forces Network. He’s also hosted, produced, and engineered several shows, including the Southern Gospel Jubilee on 660 KSKY.