By studying behavior, cognitive abilities and brain functioning in adolescents at high risk for psychosis, we can gain an insight into the vulnerability markers or protective factors in the development of psychotic symptoms. Although many high-risk studies have focused on impairments in neurocognitive functions, such as memory and attention, very few studies have investigated problems in processing social cues such as facial expressions as a possible vulnerability marker for psychosis.
Thirty-six adolescents at ultra-high risk (UHR) for psychosis and 21 non-clinical controls completed a face recognition test, a facial affect labeling test and an inhibitory control test. Schizotypal traits and schizophrenia symptoms were assessed using a schizotypy questionnaire and the Positive and Negative Syndrome Scale (PANSS).
The UHR group showed impairments in labeling facial expressions of others, in addition to a spared ability to recognize facial identity. More specifically, the UHR group made more errors in labeling neutral expressions compared to the controls, and an analysis of error types indicated that neutral faces were misattributed as being angry. The degree of misattribution of neutral-as-angry faces correlated significantly with reduced inhibitory control.
Our findings suggest that misattributing social cues might contribute to vulnerability for psychosis. This social cognitive deficit may be related to problems in inhibitory control, which potentially plays an important role in the selection of appropriate social meaning. These findings may have relevance for understanding the mechanisms underlying prodromal social dysfunction, which should be targeted in future remediation interventions.
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