Introduction: Lexico-semantic disturbances are considered central to schizophrenia. Clinically, their clearest manifestation is in language production. However, most studies probing their underlying mechanisms have used comprehension or categorization tasks. Here, we probed automatic semantic activity prior to language production in schizophrenia using event-related potentials (ERPs).
Methods: 19 people with schizophrenia and 16 demographically-matched healthy controls named target pictures that were very quickly preceded by masked prime words. To probe automatic semantic activity prior to production, we measured the N400 ERP component evoked by these targets. To determine the origin of any automatic semantic abnormalities, we manipulated the type of relationship between prime and target such that they overlapped in (a) their semantic features (semantically related, e.g. “cake” preceding a <picture of a pie>, (b) their initial phonemes (phonemically related, e.g. “stomach” preceding a <picture of a starfish>), or (c) both their semantic features and their orthographic/phonological word form (identity related, e.g. “socks” preceding a <picture of socks>). For each of these three types of relationship, the same targets were paired with unrelated prime words (counterbalanced across lists). We contrasted ERPs and naming times to each type of related target with its corresponding unrelated target.
Results: People with schizophrenia showed abnormal N400 modulation prior to naming identity related (versus unrelated) targets: whereas healthy control participants produced a smaller amplitude N400 to identity related than unrelated targets, patients showed the opposite pattern, producing a larger N400 to identity related than unrelated targets. This abnormality was specific to the identity related targets. Just like healthy control participants, people with schizophrenia produced a smaller N400 to semantically related than to unrelated targets, and showed no difference in the N400 evoked by phonemically related and unrelated targets. There were no differences between the two groups in the pattern of naming times across conditions.
Conclusion: People with schizophrenia can show abnormal neural activity associated with automatic semantic processing prior to language production. The specificity of this abnormality to the identity related targets suggests that that, rather than arising from abnormalities of either semantic features or lexical form alone, it may stem from disruptions of mappings (connections) between the meanings of words and their form.
We measured Event-Related Potentials (ERPs) and naming times to picture targets preceded by masked words (stimulus onset asynchrony: 80 ms) that shared one of three different types of relationship with the names of the pictures: (1) Identity related, in which the prime was the name of the picture ("socks" - ), (2) Phonemic Onset related, in which the initial segment of the prime was the same as the name of the picture ("log" - ), and (3) Semantically related in which the prime was a co-category exemplar and associated with the name of the picture ("cake" - ). Each type of related picture target was contrasted with an Unrelated picture target, resulting in a 3×2 design that crossed Relationship Type between the word and the target picture (Identity, Phonemic Onset and Semantic) with Relatedness (Related and Unrelated). Modulation of the N400 component to related (versus unrelated) pictures was taken to reflect semantic processing at the interface between the picture's conceptual features and its lemma, while naming times reflected the end product of all stages of processing. Both attenuation of the N400 and shorter naming times were observed to pictures preceded by Identity related (versus Unrelated) words. No ERP effects within 600 ms, but shorter naming times, were observed to pictures preceded by Phonemic Onset related (versus Unrelated) words. An attenuated N400 (electrophysiological semantic priming) but longer naming times (behavioral semantic interference) were observed to pictures preceded by Semantically related (versus Unrelated) words. These dissociations between ERP modulation and naming times suggest that (a) phonemic onset priming occurred late, during encoding of the articulatory response, and (b) semantic behavioral interference was not driven by competition at the lemma level of representation, but rather occurred at a later stage of production.