Background: The use of functional neuroimaging has been an extremely fruitful avenue for investigating the neural basis of human reward function. This approach has included identification of potential neurobiological mechanisms of psychiatric disease and examination of environmental, experiential, and biological factors that may contribute to disease risk via effects on the reward system. However, a central and largely unexamined assumption of much of this research is that neural reward function is an individual difference characteristic that is relatively stable over time. Methods: In two independent samples of adolescents and young adults studied longitudinally (Ns = 145 & 153, 100% female & 100% male, ages 15-21 & 20-22, 2-4 scans & 2 scans respectively), we tested within-person stability of reward-task BOLD activation, with a median of 1 and 2 years between scans. We examined multiple commonly used contrasts of active states and baseline in both the anticipation and feedback phases of a card-guessing reward task. We examined the effects of cortical parcellation resolution, contrast, network (reward regions and resting-state networks), region-size, and activation strength and variability on the stability of reward-related activation. Results: Overall, stability (ICC; intra-class correlation) across 1-2 years was modest. In both samples, contrasts of an active state relative to a baseline were more stable (e.g., Win>Baseline; mean ICC = 0.13 – 0.33) than contrasts of two active states (e.g., Win>Loss; mean ICC = 0.048 – 0.05). Additionally, activation in reward regions was less stable than in many non-task networks (e.g., dorsal attention), and activation in regions with greater between-subject variability showed higher stability in both samples. Conclusions: These results show that functional neuroimaging activation to reward has modest stability over 1-2 years. Notably, results suggest that contrasts intended to map cognitive function and show robust group-level effects (i.e. Win > Loss) may be less effective in studies of individual differences and disease risk. The robustness of group-level activation should be weighed against other factors when selecting regions of interest in individual difference fMRI studies.
bioRxiv Subject Collection: Neuroscience