Schizophrenia has been associated with deficits in functional brain lateralization. According to some authors, the reduction of asymmetry could even promote this psychosis. At the same time, schizophrenia is accompanied by a high prevalence of nicotine dependency compared to any other population. This association is very interesting, because sex-dependent effects of smoking in auditory language asymmetries have been reported recently, and the verbal domain is also one major focus in cognitive deficit studies of schizophrenia. Thus, the altered laterality pattern in schizophrenia could, at least in part, result from secondary artefacts due to smoking rather than being a pure cause of the disease itself. To test this hypothesis, the present study examined auditory language lateralization in 67 schizophrenia patients and in 72 healthy controls in a phonemic and an emotional dichotic listening task. Our findings replicate previous research, in that smoking reduces language lateralization in men in phonemic dichotic listening. In addition, we show that smoking also reduces laterality in women in the emotional dichotic listening task. Thus, smoking alters phonemic and emotional language asymmetries differentially for men and women, with a stronger effect for men in the left hemisphere phonemic task, and a stronger effect for women in the right hemisphere emotional task. Together, these findings point towards an effect of smoking which is possibly independent of sex and hemisphere. Importantly, by testing equal numbers of smoking and non-smoking patients and controls, we found no schizophrenia-associated asymmetry effect. Possible neurobiological mechanisms with which smoking may alter auditory microcircuits and thereby diminish left-right differences are discussed.
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