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NIMH Releases Updates to its RDoC Framework

New update reorganizes the Positive Valence domain

Institute Update

The National Institute of Mental Health’s (NIMH’s) Research Domain Criteria (RDoC) is a research framework for studying mental disorders. From its initial creation, RDoC was envisioned as a dynamic and continually developing framework. Now, the RDoC Unit has unveiled changes to the RDoC framework–a reorganization of content within the Positive Valence domain.

The RDoC, launched in 2009, was created in response to the growing awareness of challenges arising from the use of categorical diagnostic systems in research on mental illnesses. The concept was to create an alternative system for investigating mental disorders by focusing on disruptions in normal adaptive functions rather than traditional symptom-based diagnoses. The development of the initial version of the RDoC framework was the collaborative effort of over 200 leading scientists and influenced by decades of behavioral and neuroscience data.

The RDoC matrix is a tool for use by researchers to help them structure their study designs around behavioral or cognitive concepts. The current version contains five overarching systems, or domains, that influence human functioning: Negative Valence Systems, Positive Valence Systems, Cognitive Systems, Social Processes, Arousal and Regulatory Systems.

“The goal was always for the RDoC framework to evolve in response to new research from the field, and we worked for several years to develop a process for making revisions,” commented Dr. Bruce Cuthbert, Ph. D., Director of the NIMH RDoC Unit. “Now is an opportune time to start since the first round of RDoC-funded grants are providing new data that contribute to this effort.”

In this vein, the RDoC Unit has released an update to the Positive Valence domain, which includes systems primarily responsible for responses to positive motivational situations or contexts, such as reward seeking, consummatory behavior, and reward or habit learning. The revisions were spearheaded by the Changes to the RDoC Matrix (CMAT) Workgroup—a group made up of members of the National Advisory Mental Health Council, scientific experts, and NIMH staff.

The changes to the Positive Valence domain are shown in the figure below and appear alongside the previous organization for comparison purposes. The main alterations include the changing of some constructs in the previous version to sub-constructs in the new version (e.g., Initial Responsiveness to Reward) and the addition of new constructs (e.g., Probabilistic and Reinforcement Learning).

This chart show the previous and new strutcure of Positive Valence Domain. In the previous structure, the Approach Motivation construct contained four subconstructs. One: Reward Valuation. Two: Effort Valuation / Willingness to Work. Three: Expectancy / Reward Prediction Error. Four: Action Selection / Preference-Based Decision Making. The new structure establishes three new constructs. First is Reward Responsiveness, with three subconstructs: Reward Anticipation, Initial Response to Reward, and Reward Satiation. The second construct is Reward Learning, with three subconstructs: Probabilistic and Reinforcement Learning, Reward Prediction Error, and Habit. The third construct is Reward Valuation, with three subconstructs: Reward (probability), Delay, and Effort.

The reorganization is intended to make the constructs more straightforward, and to align them more closely with computational and animal model perspectives, as well as data from human neuroimaging studies.

“Even with these updates, it’s important to remember that constructs in the RDoC matrix are only intended to serve as examples,” said Cuthbert. “There is a wide range of approaches being used to study mental illnesses; therefore, research studies conducted using previous organizations of the RDoC matrix will still be a valuable contribution to the scientific literature.”

The updates to the Positive Valence domain are the newest example of RDoC as a dynamic research framework — one that evolves to incorporate the latest findings from the research community and provide exemplars for future research.

To learn more about the processes used to make changes to the matrix, and these changes, please read the RDoC Changes to the Matrix (CMAT) Workgroup report.