Overlooking the obvious: a meta-analytic comparison of digit symbol coding tasks and other cognitive measures in schizophrenia

Arch Gen Psychiatry. 2007 May;64(5):532-42. doi: 10.1001/archpsyc.64.5.532.


Context: In focusing on potentially localizable cognitive impairments, the schizophrenia meta-analytic literature has overlooked the largest single impairment: on digit symbol coding tasks.

Objective: To compare the magnitude of the schizophrenia impairment on coding tasks with impairments on other traditional neuropsychological instruments.

Data sources: MEDLINE and PsycINFO electronic databases and reference lists from identified articles.

Study selection: English-language studies from 1990 to present, comparing performance of patients with schizophrenia and healthy controls on coding tasks and cognitive measures representing at least 2 other cognitive domains. Of 182 studies identified, 40 met all criteria for inclusion in the meta-analysis.

Data extraction: Means, standard deviations, and sample sizes were extracted for digit symbol coding and 36 other cognitive variables. In addition, we recorded potential clinical moderator variables, including chronicity/severity, medication status, age, and education, and potential study design moderators, including coding task variant, matching, and study publication date.

Data synthesis: Main analyses synthesized data from 37 studies comprising 1961 patients with schizophrenia and 1444 comparison subjects. Combination of mean effect sizes across studies by means of a random effects model yielded a weighted mean effect for digit symbol coding of g = -1.57 (95% confidence interval, -1.66 to -1.48). This effect compared with a grand mean effect of g = -0.98 and was significantly larger than effects for widely used measures of episodic memory, executive functioning, and working memory. Moderator variable analyses indicated that clinical and study design differences between studies had little effect on the coding task effect. Comparison with previous meta-analyses suggested that current results were representative of the broader literature. Subsidiary analysis of data from relatives of patients with schizophrenia also suggested prominent coding task impairments in this group.

Conclusion: The 5-minute digit symbol coding task, reliable and easy to administer, taps an information processing inefficiency that is a central feature of the cognitive deficit in schizophrenia and deserves systematic investigation.

Publication types

  • Comparative Study
  • Meta-Analysis
  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Adult
  • Attention
  • Cognition Disorders / diagnosis*
  • Family
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Memory Disorders / diagnosis
  • Memory, Short-Term
  • Neuropsychological Tests / statistics & numerical data*
  • Recognition, Psychology
  • Schizophrenia / diagnosis*
  • Schizophrenic Psychology
  • Wechsler Scales