Background Increased neural error-signals have been observed in obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), anxiety disorders, and inconsistently in depression. Reduced neural error-signals have been observed in substance use disorders (SUD). Thus, alterations in error-monitoring are proposed as a transdiagnostic endophenotype. To strengthen this notion, data from unaffected individuals with a family history for the respective disorders are needed.
Methods The error-related negativity (ERN) as a neural indicator of error-monitoring was measured during a flanker task from 117 OCD patients, 50 unaffected first-degree relatives of OCD patients, and 130 healthy comparison participants. Family history information indicated, that 76 healthy controls were free of a family history for psychopathology, whereas the remaining had first-degree relatives with depression (n = 28), anxiety (n = 27), and/or SUD (n = 27).
Results Increased ERN amplitudes were found in OCD patients and unaffected first-degree relatives of OCD patients. In addition, unaffected first-degree relatives of individuals with anxiety disorders were also characterized by increased ERN amplitudes, whereas relatives of individuals with SUD showed reduced amplitudes.
Conclusions Alterations in neural error-signals in unaffected first-degree relatives with a family history of OCD, anxiety, or SUD support the utility of the ERN as a transdiagnostic endophenotype. Reduced neural error-signals may indicate vulnerability for under-controlled behavior and risk for substance use, whereas a harm- or error-avoidant response style and vulnerability for OCD and anxiety appears to be associated with increased ERN. This adds to findings suggesting a common neurobiological substrate across psychiatric disorders involving the anterior cingulate cortex and deficits in cognitive control.