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Associations of bipolar traits with reward and threat sensitivity and conditioning Terpstra, Alexander Roy

Abstract

Bipolar Spectrum Disorders (BSDs) affect 1% of the population and cause significant interpersonal, occupational, and health challenges. Identifying cognitive, affective, and behavioural factors that influence BSD symptoms and related behaviours, consistent with a dimensional approach to psychopathology, may help improve our understanding and treatment of these disorders. Reward and threat sensitivity and learning, for example, are cognitive processes that may be dimensionally related to BSD risk, onset, and course. However, studies exploring reward and threat sensitivity and learning as a function of continuously measured bipolar traits, as opposed to categorical diagnoses or acute symptoms, have mostly employed self-report measures of sensitivity and overlooked classical conditioning. Thus, in this investigation, I explored how bipolar traits in two university student samples related to reward and threat sensitivity and conditioning measured using laboratory tasks. In Study 1, I found that higher self-reported lifetime hypomanic and depressive symptoms significantly predicted sensitivity to incentive reward and a stronger classically conditioned response to a threat-related cue, respectively. In Study 2, I addressed these questions in a larger sample of participants based on three higher-order bipolar traits as predictors of sensitivity and conditioning, variables extracted from measures of lower-order BSD-related traits using principal components analysis. Participants with higher scores for Factor 1, characterized by impulsiveness, low self-control, and low achievement, demonstrated significantly weaker classically conditioned responses to reward- and threat-related cues. Higher Factor 2 scores, indicating greater vulnerability to emotion dysregulation and negative affective responses to stress, significantly predicted greater sensitivity to threat. Finally, higher scores for Factor 3, reflecting a tendency to pursue and engage in stimulating experiences despite potential risks, significantly predicted greater sensitivity to incentive reward and lower susceptibility to forming classically conditioned responses to threat-related cues. These results indicate that bipolar traits may be meaningfully associated with patterns of reward and threat sensitivity and conditioning, associations which may have important implications for predicting and altering maladaptive levels of bipolar traits.

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