Altered medial prefrontal activity during dynamic face processing in schizophrenia spectrum patients
BACKGROUND: Processing the emotional content of faces is recognised as a key deficit of schizophrenia, associated with poorer functional outcomes and possibly contributing to the severity of clinical symptoms such as paranoia. At the neural level, fMRI studies have reported altered limbic activity in response to facial stimuli. However, previous studies may be limited by the use of cognitively demanding tasks and static facial stimuli. To address these issues, the current study used a face processing task involving both passive face viewing and dynamic social stimuli. Such a task may (1) lack the potentially confounding effects of high cognitive demands and (2) show higher ecological validity.
METHODS: Functional MRI was used to examine neural activity in 25 patients with a DSM-IV diagnosis of schizophrenia/schizoaffective disorder and 21 age- and gender-matched healthy controls while they participated in a face processing task, which involved viewing videos of angry and neutral facial expressions, and a non-biological baseline condition.
RESULTS: While viewing faces, patients showed significantly weaker deactivation of the medial prefrontal cortex, including the anterior cingulate, and decreased activation in the left cerebellum, compared to controls. Patients also showed weaker medial prefrontal deactivation while viewing the angry faces relative to baseline.
DISCUSSION: Given that the anterior cingulate plays a role in processing negative emotion, weaker deactivation of this region in patients while viewing faces may contribute to an increased perception of social threat. Future studies examining the neurobiology of social cognition in schizophrenia using fMRI may help establish targets for treatment interventions