Attention and Schizophrenia: Impaired Modulation of the Startle Reflex

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The startle reflex (SR) elicited by abrupt stimuli can be modified by attention to nonstartling stimuli that shortly precede the startle-eliciting stimulus. The present study of 15 recent-onset, relatively asymptomatic schizophrenic outpatients and 14 demographically matched normal control subjects demonstrated that attentional modulation of SR is impaired in schizophrenic patients. Specifically, the control group exhibited greater startle eye-blink modification following to-be-attended prestimuli than following to-be-ignored prestimuli, whereas the patients failed to show the attentional modulation effect. These results suggest traitlike attentional deficits in schizophrenia because the patients were relatively asymptomatic. The measurement of attentional modulation of SR may provide a nonverbal, reflexive, state-independent marker of the vulnerability to schizophrenia.

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