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04-08-2011 | Psychology | Article

Schizophrenia patients show increased arousal to neutral social scenes


Free abstract

MedWire News: Study results show that patients with paranoid schizophrenia report significantly higher levels of emotional arousal when viewing neutral social scenes than mentally healthy individuals.

"From the clinical practice and some experimental studies, it is apparent that paranoid schizophrenia patients tend to assign emotional salience to neutral social stimuli," write Kristina Hennig-Fast (Ludwig-Maximilians-University, Munich, Germany) and team in the European Archives of Psychiatry and Clinical Neuroscience.

"This aberrant cognitive bias has been conceptualized to result from increased emotional arousal, but direct empirical data are scarce," they add.

To investigate further, the team studied 30 male inpatients with paranoid schizophrenia and 30 age- and education-matched mentally healthy men.

All of the participants were asked to view 20 photographs of neutral and negative social scenes from the International Affective Picture System and the Munich Affective Picture System. The neutral scenes involved people attending public events or engaged in work, hobbies, or everyday tasks, while the negative scenes involved people in situations of loss, grief, abuse, poverty, physical threat, injuries, and disaster.

The participants were asked to rate their level of subjective emotional arousal (SEA) after viewing each scene on a scale of 1 (low) to 9 (high).

The researchers found that the mean level of SEA to neutral social scenes was significantly higher among patients with schizophrenia than controls, at 4.77 versus 2.53.

In contrast, there was no significant difference in mean SEA level between schizophrenia patients and controls after viewing negative social scenes, at 5.14 and 5.08, respectively.

Hennig-Fast and team comment: "To our knowledge, the present study is the first designed to directly demonstrate the emotional over-arousal to non-salient emotionally neutral complex social scenes in paranoid schizophrenia patients."

They conclude: "Based on these findings, we might assume that the paranoid misattribution of emotional salience to neutral social stimuli could result from increased SEA.

"Further studies are necessary to test this hypothesis directly."

By Mark Cowen

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