Schizophrenic patients exhibit impairments in both sensorimotor gating and habituation in a number of paradigms. Through human and animal model research, these fundamental cognitive deficits have well-described neurobiologic bases and offer insights into the neuroanatomic and neurotransmitter abnormalities that characterize patients with schizophrenic spectrum disorders. In this context, the startle response is particularly interesting, because it is a cross-species response to strong stimuli that is plastic or alterable using experimental and neurobiologic manipulations. Thirty-nine medicated schizophrenic patients and 37 normal control subjects were studied in a new electromyography based startle response paradigm in which both prepulse inhibition (an operational measure of sensorimotor gating) and habituation (the normal decrease in response magnitude to repeated stimuli over time) can be separated and assessed in one test session. The results indicate that schizophrenic patients have extensive deficits in both intramodal and cross-modal sensorimotor gating and a trend to show acoustic startle habituation deficits. The deficit in prepulse inhibition of startle amplitude exhibited by schizophrenic patients was evident when an acoustic prepulse stimulus preceded either an acoustic or a tactile startle stimulus. No deficit was observed in the prepulse-induced facilitation of startle latencies, indicating that the failure of gating was not due to a failure of stimulus detection. These findings suggest centrally mediated deficits in sensorimotor gating in schizophrenic patients.