Attentional Processing of Emotional Faces in Schizophrenia: Evidence From Eye Tracking

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Abstract

Severe emotional disturbances such as anxiety and depression have been closely related to aberrant attentional processing of emotional stimuli. However, this has been little studied in schizophrenia, which is also characterized by marked emotional impairments such as heightened negative affect and anhedonia. In the current study, we investigated temporal dynamics of motivated attention to emotional stimuli in schizophrenia. For this purpose, we tracked eye movements of 22 individuals with schizophrenia or schizoaffective disorder (ISZs) and 19 healthy controls (HCs) to emotional (i.e., happy, sad, angry) and neutral face pairs presented either for 500 ms or 1,500 ms. Initial fixation direction and viewing time at 3 successive intervals (0–500, 500–1,000, 1,000–1,500 ms) were calculated. The results showed that both ISZs and HCs were more likely to orient initial fixations and exhibited longer viewing times to emotional than neutral faces. However, compared with HCs, ISZs allocated less attention to overall faces during the late stage (1,000–1,500 ms) when one of the paired faces displayed negative emotions. Furthermore, positive symptoms were highly associated with initial fixation avoidance to angry faces while depressive symptoms were related to later avoidance of angry faces. Both social amotivation and poor interpersonal functioning were closely related to diminished sustained attention to happy faces. This suggests that early attentional capture of emotional salience may be relatively preserved in schizophrenia, but the people with this disorder display an atypical late attentional process characterized by generalized attentional avoidance of negative stimuli. Of note, aberrant attentional processes of social threat and reward were closely associated with major symptoms and functioning in this disorder.

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