Emotionally significant stimuli typically capture attention (called motivated attention) even when they are irrelevant to tasks where attention is directed. Previous studies indicate that several components of emotional processing are intact in schizophrenia when subjects are instructed to attend to emotionally-evocative stimuli. However, few studies have examined whether emotional stimuli capture attention to a normal degree in people with schizophrenia when attention is directed elsewhere. The current event-related potential study examined motivated attention to task-irrelevant emotional stimuli in 35 stabilized outpatients and 26 healthy controls with a modified visual P300 oddball detection task. Participants viewed images of rare target and commonly occurring standard letter stimuli, as well as intermixed emotional (unpleasant, pleasant, neutral) pictures. Subjects were instructed to count the number of rare targets; the emotional valence of the picture stimuli was, therefore, task-irrelevant. We separately evaluated the Early Posterior Negativity (EPN) and Late Positive Potential (LPP) to emotional pictures and the P300 to target stimuli. Patients and controls showed similar patterns of EPN and LPP amplitude to the emotional stimuli, such that the EPN and LPP were larger for both pleasant and unpleasant versus neutral pictures. Although patients performed worse than controls on the target counting task, both groups showed comparable P300 differentiation between target versus non-target stimuli. Emotional stimuli captured attentional resources in people with schizophrenia even when the emotional stimuli were task-irrelevant, suggesting intact motivated attention at the level of early electrophysiological responding.
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