Background: The amygdala plays a central role in detecting and responding to fear-related stimuli. A number of recent studies have reported decreased amygdala activation in schizophrenia to emotional stimuli (such as fearful faces) compared with matched neutral stimuli (such as neutral faces). We investigated whether the apparent decrease in amygdala activation in schizophrenia could actually derive from increased amygdala activation to the neutral comparator stimuli.
Methods: Nineteen patients with schizophrenia and 24 matched control participants viewed pictures of faces with either fearful or neutral facial expressions, and a baseline condition, during functional magnetic resonance imaging scanning.
Results: Patients with schizophrenia showed a relative decrease in amygdala activation to fearful faces compared with neutral faces. However, this difference resulted from an increase in amygdala activation to the neutral faces in patients with schizophrenia, not from a decreased response to the fearful faces.
Conclusions: Patients with schizophrenia show an increased response of the amygdala to neutral faces. This is sufficient to explain their apparent deficit in amygdala activation to fearful faces compared with neutral faces. The inappropriate activation of neural systems involved in fear to otherwise neutral stimuli may contribute to the development of psychotic symptoms in schizophrenia.