Patients with schizophrenia show deficits in motivation, reward anticipation and salience attribution. Several functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) investigations revealed neurobiological correlates of these deficits, raising the hypothesis of a common basis in midbrain dopaminergic signaling. However, investigations of drug-naïve first-episode patients with comprehensive fMRI tasks are still missing. We recruited unmedicated schizophrenia spectrum patients (N=27) and healthy control subjects (N=27) matched for sex, age and educational levels. An established monetary reward anticipation task in combination with a novel task aiming at implicit salience attribution without the confound of monetary incentive was applied. Patients showed reduced right ventral striatal activation during reward anticipation. Furthermore, patients with a more pronounced hypoactivation attributed more salience to neutral stimuli, had more positive symptoms and better executive functioning. In the patient group, a more differentially active striatum during reward anticipation was correlated positively to differential ventral striatal activation in the implicit salience attribution task. In conclusion, a deficit in ventral striatal activation during reward anticipation can already be seen in drug-naïve, first episode schizophrenia patients. The data suggest that rather a deficit in differential ventral striatal activation than a generally reduced activation underlies motivational deficits in schizophrenia and that this deficit is related to the aberrant salience attribution.
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