Automatic activation of the semantic network in schizophrenia: Evidence from event-related brain potentials

Ruth Condray, Greg J. Siegle, Jonathan D. Cohen, Daniel P. Van Kammen, Stuart R. Steinhauer

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71 Scopus citations


Background: Language disorder associated with schizophrenia might be due to disturbances in both automatic activation and mechanisms of controlled attention. The contribution of each process to semantic memory dysfunction has not been determined for schizophrenia, and the semantic priming paradigm is well-suited for addressing this question. In the present report, event-related potentials (ERPs) elicited under conditions assumed to reveal automatic activation (short prime-target interval and low proportion of related words) are compared directly with ERPs elicited under conditions associated with controlled processing (long prime-target interval and high proportion of related words). Methods: Visual ERPs were recorded during a lexical decision task, in which semantic relationship (associated and unassociated words), expectancy (relatedness proportions), and prime-target interval (250- and 850-msec inter-stimulus intervals [ISIs]) were varied. Diagnosis and expectancy were between-subjects factors; semantic relationship and ISI were repeated measures. The N400 priming effect (enhanced negativity to unassociated words) was compared between 34 male normal control subjects tested once and 37 male schizophrenia inpatients evaluated during their participation in a double-blind haloperidol maintenance therapy and placebo replacement protocol. Results: The N400 priming effect for patients was significantly reduced during both pharmacologic phases, compared with controls. During haloperidol treatment, however, patients showed a significant N400 priming effect over the anterior scalp region and additionally under the automatic activation condition. The N400 priming effect was enhanced under the controlled processing condition for control subjects; this effect was not observed for patients. N400 amplitude elicited under the rapid presentation rate (250-msec ISI) differed between medicated patients and controls; groups did not differ for the 850-msec ISI. Conclusions: Findings suggest that automatic activation and mechanisms of controlled attention are both disrupted during semantic memory access for schizophrenia patients. Pharmacologic agents, such as haloperidol, might enhance automatic activation of the semantic network in this patient population, as indexed by the N400 component of the ERP.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1134-1148
Number of pages15
JournalBiological Psychiatry
Issue number11
StatePublished - Dec 1 2003

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Biological Psychiatry


  • Automatic activation
  • N400
  • Schizophrenia
  • Semantic priming


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