Researchers at SMU and UCLA are enrolling subjects for a five-year study of a treatment for a psychological condition known as anhedonia – the inability to find pleasure in any aspect of life. A grant of approximately $4 million from the National Institute of Mental Health will allow professors Alicia Meuret and Thomas Ritz at SMU and Michelle G. Craske at UCLA to study the effectiveness of their treatment in 168 people suffering from this very specific symptom.
“The goal of this novel therapeutic approach is to train people to develop psychological muscle memory – to learn again how to experience joy and identify that experience when it occurs,” said Meuret, professor of psychology and director of SMU’s Anxiety and Depression Research Center. “Anhedonia is an aspect of depression, but it also is a symptom that really reaches across psychiatric and non-psychiatric disorders. It’s the absence or the lack of experiencing rewards.”
Historically, treatments for affective disorders such as anxiety and depression have been aimed at reducing negative affect, Meuret said. Over the next five years, Meuret, Ritz and Craske will treat 168 people using a type of cognitive behavioral therapy aimed at teaching people to seek out and recognize the positive aspects of life – increasing their sensitivity to reward. They will compare their results with a more traditional approach of treating the negative affect side of their problems.
The monitoring of treatment success will include simple biomarkers of enjoyment. “The heart beats faster in joy, something that has been shown to be absent in anhedonia,” said Ritz, an SMU professor of psychology who specializes in studying the relationship between biology and psychology in affective disorders and chronic disease. Other measures will capture immune activity, which is important as an indicator of long-term health.