The effect of limited cognitive resources on communication disturbances in serious mental illness

Psychiatry Res. 2017 Feb;248:98-104. doi: 10.1016/j.psychres.2016.12.025. Epub 2016 Dec 20.


Semantically incoherent speech is a pernicious clinical feature of serious mental illness (SMI). The precise mechanisms underlying this deficit remain unclear. Prior studies have found that arousal of negative emotion exaggerates the severity of these communication disturbances; this has been coined "affective reactivity". Recent research suggests that "cognitive reactivity" may also occur, namely reflecting reduced "on-line" cognitive resources in SMI. We tested the hypothesis that communication disturbances manifest as a function of limited cognitive resources in SMI above and beyond that associated with state affectivity. We also investigated individual differences in symptoms, cognitive ability, and trait affect that may be related to cognitive reactivity. We compared individuals with SMI (n=52) to nonpsychiatric controls (n=27) on a behavioral-based coding of communication disturbances during separate baseline and experimentally-manipulated high cognitive-load dual tasks. Controlling for state affective reactivity, a significant interaction was observed such that communication disturbances decreased in the SMI group under high cognitive-load. Furthermore, a reduction in communication disturbances was related to lower trait and state positive affectivity in the SMI group. Contrary to our expectations, limited cognitive resources temporarily relieved language dysfunction. Implications, particularly with respect to interventions, are discussed.

Keywords: Affect; Cognition; Communication disturbances; Language; Serious mental illness.

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Case-Control Studies
  • Cognition*
  • Communication Disorders / psychology*
  • Emotions*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Language
  • Male
  • Mental Disorders / psychology*
  • Middle Aged