Relation of prefrontal cortex dysfunction to working memory and symptoms in schizophrenia

W M Perlstein, C S Carter, D C Noll, J D Cohen
American Journal of Psychiatry 2001, 158 (7): 1105-13

OBJECTIVE: The dorsolateral prefrontal cortex has been implicated in both working memory and the pathophysiology of schizophrenia. A relationship among dorsolateral prefrontal cortex activity, working memory dysfunction, and symptoms in schizophrenia has not been firmly established, partly because of generalized cognitive impairments in patients and task complexity. Using tasks that parametrically manipulated working memory load, the authors tested three hypotheses: 1) patients with schizophrenia differ in prefrontal activity only when behavioral performance differentiates them from healthy comparison subjects, 2) dorsolateral prefrontal cortex dysfunction is associated with poorer task performance, and 3) dorsolateral prefrontal cortex dysfunction is associated with cognitive disorganization but not negative or positive symptoms.

METHOD: Seventeen conventionally medicated patients with schizophrenia and 16 healthy comparison subjects underwent functional magnetic resonance imaging while performing multiple levels of the "n-back" sequential-letter working memory task.

RESULTS: Patients with schizophrenia showed a deficit in physiological activation of the right dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (Brodmann's area 46/9) in the context of normal task-dependent activity in other regions, but only under the condition that distinguished them from comparison subjects on task performance. Patients with greater dorsolateral prefrontal cortex dysfunction performed more poorly. Dorsolateral prefrontal cortex dysfunction was selectively associated with disorganization symptoms.

CONCLUSIONS: These results are consistent with the hypotheses that working memory dysfunction in patients with schizophrenia is caused by a disturbance of the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex and that this disturbance is selectively associated with cognitive disorganization. Further, the pattern of behavioral performance suggests that dorsolateral prefrontal cortex dysfunction does not reflect a deficit in the maintenance of stimulus representations per se but points to deficits in more associative components of working memory.

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