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May 1997

Backward Masking Performance in Unaffected Siblings of Schizophrenic Patients: Evidence for a Vulnerability Indicator

Arch Gen Psychiatry. 1997;54(5):465-472. doi:10.1001/archpsyc.1997.01830170091012

Background:  Visual masking is a procedure that is used to assess the earliest components of visual processing. In backward masking, the identification of an initial stimulus (the target) is disrupted by a later stimulus (the mask). The masking function can be divided into an early component (eg, up to about 60 ms) that reflects the involvement of sensory-perceptual processes, and a later component that reflects susceptibility to attentional disengagement as the mask diverts processing away from the representation of the target. Schizophrenic patients show anomalies on both masking components. It is not known whether backward masking deficits reflect enduring genetic vulnerability to schizophrenia.

Methods:  We assessed 32 unaffected siblings of schizophrenic patients and 52 normal control subjects on the early and late components of 4 masking conditions. The conditions differentially involved the sustained and transient visual pathways.

Results:  The unaffected siblings showed poorer overall performance than control subjects on the masking procedures. More specifically, siblings showed anomalies on the early, sensory-perceptual component, but not on the later, attentional disengagement component.

Conclusions:  The backward masking performance deficits that have been observed in schizophrenic patients appear to reflect enduring vulnerability to the disorder rather than only the symptoms of the illness. This vulnerability appears to be associated with early, sensoryperceptual processes.