The predictive value of neural reward processing on exposure therapy outcome: Results from a randomized controlled trial

Silvia Papalini, Iris Lange, Jindra Bakker, Stijn Michielse, Machteld Marcelis, Marieke Wichers, Bram Vervliet, Jim van Os, Therese Van Amelsvoort, Liesbet Goossens, Koen Schruers

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleAcademicpeer-review


Exposure is the gold standard treatment for phobic anxiety and is thought to represent the clinical application of extinction learning. Reward sensitivity might however also represent a predictive factor for exposure therapy outcome, as this therapy promotes positive experiences and involves positive comments by the therapist. We hypothesized that high reward sensitivity, as expressed by elevated reward expectancy and reward value, can be associated with better outcome to exposure therapy specifically.
Forty-four participants with a specific phobia for spiders were included in the current study. Participants were randomly assigned to exposure therapy (n = 25) or progressive muscle relaxation (PMR) (n = 19). Treatment outcome was defined as pre- versus post-therapy phobia symptoms. Before treatment, functional brain responses and behavioral responses (i.e. reaction time and accuracy) during reward anticipation and consumption were assessed with the Monetary Incentive Delay task (MID). Behavioral and neural responses in regions of interest (i.e. nucleus accumbens, ventromedial prefrontal cortex and the ventral tegmental area) as well as across the whole-brain were subsequently regressed on treatment outcomes.
Exposure therapy was more effective in reducing phobia symptoms than PMR. Longer reaction times to reward cues and lower activation in the left posterior cingulate cortex during reward consumption were selectively associated with symptoms reductions following exposure therapy but not following PMR. Only within the exposure therapy group, greater symptom reduction was related to increased activation in the ventrolateral prefrontal cortex during reward anticipation, and decreased activation in the medial prefrontal cortex during reward consumption.
Results indicate that individual differences in reward sensitivity can specifically predict exposure therapy outcome. Although activation in regions of interest were not related to therapy outcome, regions involved in attentional processing of reward cues were predictive of phobic symptom change following exposure therapy but not PMR.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)339-346
Number of pages8
JournalProgress in Neuro-Psychopharmacology and Biological Psychiatry
Publication statusPublished - 8 Jun 2019
Externally publishedYes


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