Neuroimaging studies of cognitive remediation in schizophrenia: A systematic and critical review

World J Psychiatry. 2017 Mar 22;7(1):34-43. doi: 10.5498/wjp.v7.i1.34.


Aim: To examine the effects of cognitive remediation therapies on brain functioning through neuroimaging procedures in patients with schizophrenia.

Methods: A systematic, computerised literature search was conducted in the PubMed/Medline and PsychInfo databases. The search was performed through February 2016 without any restrictions on language or publication date. The search was performed using the following search terms: [("cogniti*" and "remediation" or "training" or "enhancement") and ("fMRI" or "MRI" or "PET" or "SPECT") and (schizophrenia or schiz*)]. The search was accompanied by a manual online search and a review of the references from each of the papers selected, and those papers fulfilling our inclusion criteria were also included.

Results: A total of 101 studies were found, but only 18 of them fulfilled the inclusion criteria. These studies indicated that cognitive remediation improves brain activation in neuroimaging studies. The most commonly reported changes were those that involved the prefrontal and thalamic regions. Those findings are in agreement with the hypofrontality hypothesis, which proposes that frontal hypoactivation is the underlying mechanism of cognitive impairments in schizophrenia. Nonetheless, great heterogeneity among the studies was found. They presented different hypotheses, different results and different findings. The results of more recent studies interpreted cognitive recovery within broader frameworks, namely, as amelioration of the efficiency of different networks. Furthermore, advances in neuroimaging methodologies, such as the use of whole-brain analysis, tractography, graph analysis, and other sophisticated methodologies of data processing, might be conditioning the interpretation of results and generating new theoretical frameworks. Additionally, structural changes were described in both the grey and white matter, suggesting a neuroprotective effect of cognitive remediation. Cognitive, functional and structural improvements tended to be positively correlated.

Conclusion: Neuroimaging studies of cognitive remediation in patients with schizophrenia suggest a positive effect on brain functioning in terms of the functional reorganisation of neural networks.

Keywords: Cognition; Cognitive remediation; Cognitive training; Neuroimaging; Plasticity; Prefrontal cortex; Schizophrenia; Thalamus.