Empathy deficits linked to reduced functioning in schizophrenia patients
MedWire News: Results from a US study show that impaired perspective-taking, a component of cognitive empathy, is associated with reduced functioning in patients with schizophrenia.
"Empathy, or sharing and understanding the unique emotions and experiences of other people, is one of the key elements of social cognition, and prior studies suggest that empathic processes are impaired in schizophrenia," explain Matthew Smith (Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine, Chicago, Illinois) and team.
To investigate whether impairments in empathy are independently associated with poor functional outcomes in schizophrenia patients, the team studied 46 patients with the disorder (mean age 35.2 years) and 37 mentally healthy individuals (mean age 31.6 years). There were no significant differences between the groups in terms of gender, parental socioeconomic status, or ethnicity.
All of the participants were assessed for emotional and cognitive empathy using the Interpersonal Reactivity Index (IRI), for functional capacity using the brief version of the University of California-San Diego Performance-based Skills Assessment (UPSA-B), and for community functioning using the Specific Levels of Functioning (SLOF) interview.
Patients with schizophrenia were also assessed using the Scale for the Assessment of Positive Symptoms (SAPS) and the Scale for the Assessment of Negative Symptoms (SANS), and completed a neuropsychologic test battery.
The researchers found that schizophrenia patients had significantly lower IRI scores than controls for perspective-taking (17.2 vs 20.2) and empathic concern (18.4 vs 20.7). Conversely, schizophrenia patients had significantly higher IRI scores than controls for personal distress (13.3 vs 9.4).
Among schizophrenia patients, reduced IRI scores for perspective-taking, increased levels of disorganized symptoms (as assessed using the SAPS and SANS), and greater deficits in working and episodic memory correlated with poorer UPSA-B and SLOF scores.
After accounting for neurocognitive and psychopathologic variables, the researchers found that lower IRI scores for perspective-taking explained significant incremental variance in both functional capacity and community functioning.
Smith and team conclude in Schizophrenia Research: "Among individuals with schizophrenia, lower perspective-taking correlated with both functional capacity and community functioning."
They add that the "consistency of these findings across interview- and performance-based measures of functioning suggests that cognitive empathy may determine the degree to which an individual with schizophrenia can function in the community and is therefore a promising new target for rehabilitative interventions."
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By Mark Cowen