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.