We examined the executive control of emotional information and its relationship to social functioning in individuals at risk for schizophrenia, defined by high social anhedonia (SA). Using the same structure as the Attentional Network Test (ANT), we developed a measure of executive control of emotional information (ANT-Emotion) in which subjects identify the direction of an arrow flanked by irrelevant angry or neutral faces. Subjects completed the ANT, ANT-Emotion, and the Social Adjustment Scale, Self-Report (SAS-SR), a measure of social functioning. While there were no group differences in the alerting, orienting, and executive control networks assessed by the ANT, high SA individuals exhibited a specific impairment in the executive control of emotional information. High SA individuals also reported poorer social functioning. However, executive control of emotional information did not mediate the relationship between SA and social functioning. These findings indicate that, in high-risk populations, the impaired ability to inhibit emotional information allows negative affective stimuli to exert inappropriate influence on cognitive processes. These results are consistent with studies indicating similar findings in schizophrenia patients, suggesting that impaired inhibition of negative emotion may be part of the liability for the disorder.
Individuals with low self-esteem have been found to react more negatively to signs of interpersonal rejection than those with high self-esteem. However, previous research has found that individual differences in attentional control can attenuate negative reactions to social rejection among vulnerable, low self-esteem individuals. The current fMRI study sought to elucidate the neurobiological substrate of this buffering effect. We hypothesized and found that while looking at scenes of social rejection (vs negative scenes) low self-esteem high attentional control individuals engaged the rostral anterior cingulate cortex (rACC), an area of the brain associated with emotional control, more than their low self-esteem low attentional control peers. Furthermore, we found that low self-esteem high attentional control individuals evaluated social rejection as less arousing and less rejecting in a separate behavioral task. Importantly, activation in the rACC fully mediated the relationship between the interaction of self-esteem and attentional control and emotional evaluations, suggesting that the rACC activation underlies the buffering effects of attentional control. Results are discussed in terms of individual differences in emotional vulnerability and protection and by highlighting the role of rACC in emotion regulation.
Cognitive remediation training has been shown to improve both cognitive and social cognitive deficits in people with schizophrenia, but the mechanisms that support this behavioral improvement are largely unknown. One hypothesis is that intensive behavioral training in cognition and/or social cognition restores the underlying neural mechanisms that support targeted skills. However, there is little research on the neural effects of cognitive remediation training. This study investigated whether a 50 h (10-week) remediation intervention which included both cognitive and social cognitive training would influence neural function in regions that support social cognition. Twenty-two stable, outpatient schizophrenia participants were randomized to a treatment condition consisting of auditory-based cognitive training (AT) [Brain Fitness Program/auditory module ~60 min/day] plus social cognition training (SCT) which was focused on emotion recognition [~5-15 min per day] or a placebo condition of non-specific computer games (CG) for an equal amount of time. Pre and post intervention assessments included an fMRI task of positive and negative facial emotion recognition, and standard behavioral assessments of cognition, emotion processing, and functional outcome. There were no significant intervention-related improvements in general cognition or functional outcome. fMRI results showed the predicted group-by-time interaction. Specifically, in comparison to CG, AT+SCT participants had a greater pre-to-post intervention increase in postcentral gyrus activity during emotion recognition of both positive and negative emotions. Furthermore, among all participants, the increase in postcentral gyrus activity predicted behavioral improvement on a standardized test of emotion processing (MSCEIT: Perceiving Emotions). Results indicate that combined cognition and social cognition training impacts neural mechanisms that support social cognition skills.