Objective: The reliable discrimination of emotional expressions in faces is essential for adequate social interaction. Deficits in facial emotion processing are an important impairment in schizophrenia with major consequences for social functioning and subjective well-being. Whether neural circuits underlying emotion processing are already altered before illness onset is yet unclear. Investigating neural correlates of emotion processing in individuals clinically at risk for psychosis offers the possibility to examine neural processes unchanged by the manifest disorder and to study trait aspects of emotion dysfunctions.
Material and methods: Twelve subjects clinically at risk for psychosis and 12 matched control subjects participated in this study. fMRI data were acquired during an emotion discrimination task consisting of standardized photographs of faces displaying different emotions (happiness, sadness, anger, fear) as well as faces with neutral facial expression.
Results: There were no group differences in behavioral performance. Emotion discrimination was associated with hyperactivations in high-risk subjects in the right lingual and fusiform gyrus as well as the left middle occipital gyrus. Further, high-risk compared to control subjects exhibited stronger activation related to neutral faces relative to emotional faces in the inferior and superior frontal gyri, the cuneus, the thalamus and the hippocampus.
Conclusions: The present study indicates that individuals clinically at risk for psychosis show differences in brain activation associated with processing of emotional and--more pronounced--neutral facial expressions despite an adequate behavioral performance. The proneness to attribute salience to neutral stimuli might indicate a biological risk marker for psychosis.