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December 1996

Schizophrenic Deficits in the Processing of Context: A Test of a Theoretical Model

Author Affiliations

From the Department of Psychiatry, University of Pittsburgh (Drs Servan Schreiber, Cohen, and Steingard), and the Department of Psychology, Carnegie Mellon University (Dr Cohen), Pittsburgh, Pa. Dr Steingard is now with the Howard Center for Human Services, Burlington, Vt.

Arch Gen Psychiatry. 1996;53(12):1105-1112. doi:10.1001/archpsyc.1996.01830120037008

Background:  Schizophrenic patients show various deficits in cognitive functions that have been difficult to understand in terms of a common unifying hypothesis. Previously described neural network models of cognitive tasks suggest that several schizophrenic performance deficits may be related to a single function—an impairment in maintaining contextual information over time and in using that information to inhibit inappropriate responses.

Methods:  We tested first-episode schizophrenic patients and patients later in the course of their illness on a new variant of the Continuous Performance Test designed specifically to elicit deficits in the processing of contextual information.

Results:  Unmedicated schizophrenic patients showed a deterioration of their signal detection performance that followed the pattern predicted by the context hypothesis, ie, they responded inappropriately when correct responding required the maintenance of context information over time to inhibit the expression of a habitual response. This deficit correlated with positive symptoms. The results also suggested that the deficit may be worse in unmedicated patients who have had a longer course of illness. Medicated patients showed a more diffuse performance deficit.

Conclusions:  These results support the view that a single deficit in the processing of context information may underlie various cognitive impairments observed in schizophrenia. They also suggest that such an impairment is associated with positive rather than negative symptoms, and that it may worsen with the course of the illness as in the kraepelinian view of schizophrenia.