August 09, 2004

Social cognition and face processing in schizophrenia

Hall J, Harris JM, Sprengelmeyer R, Sprengelmeyer A, Young AW, Santos IM, Johnstone EC, Lawrie SM. The British Journal of Psychiatry (2004) 185: 169-170

Many people with schizophrenia describe difficulty with social function. Different areas of the brain are thought to be involved in recognizing emotion in faces (ie. parts of the brain known as the amygdala, insula and basal ganglia). More complex social judgments are believed to depend upon an interaction between different parts of the brain (prefrontal cortex and temporal lobe). Researchers have suggested that some of these brain regions (e.g. amygdala, prefrontal and superior temporal cortex) are reduced in volume in schizophrenia.

Since a lot of social information is gathered by observing faces, this study focused on how people recognize emotions and make social judgments based on faces. The researchers asked 20 people with schizophrenia and 20 without the illness, to identify faces, recognize emotions on faces and make social judgments based on faces. They found that while everyone did well in identifying faces, those with schizophrenia had difficulties recognizing emotion on people�s faces and making social judgments based on facial expressions. This was particularly true for those experiencing positive symptoms (e.g. voices, thought disturbances). They used statistical analyses to confirm that none of the effects could be accounted for by variations in illness duration, medications or depression. The authors argue that their results are unlikely to be due to a general problem in facial information processing, since everyone in their study was able to recognize the identity of faces. Instead, since making complex social judgments from faces requires interaction between certain areas of the brain that seem to be structurally abnormal in schizophrenia (i.e. frontal and temporal regions), they suggest that difficulties in social thinking may be a core difficulty of schizophrenia, which is likely to be related to these abnormal brain regions.

They also suggest that since positive symptoms seem to affect the ability to identify basic facial emotions, the brain regions involved in facial emotion recognition (e.g. amygdala) may get impaired during psychotic episodes, or the ability to compensate for deficits in these regions may fail when positive symptoms develop. Such work has implications for treatment since such information can be used to help strengthen weaknesses in such social and emotional recognition dimensions during clinical psychosocial treatments.

The study was funded by the Stanley Medical Research Institute.

Click here to find this article on Pubmed

Author: Farzin Irani


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