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Autonomic Nervous System Activation During Social Cognition Tasks in Patients With Schizophrenia and Their Unaffected Relatives

Jáuregui, Oscar Ignacio Med. Int.*; Costanzo, Elsa Y. MD*; de Achával, Delfina BA*,†; Villarreal, Mirta F. PhD*,†; Chu, Elvina MD; Mora, Martina C. BA*; Vigo, Daniel E. MD, PhD†,§; Castro, Mariana N. MD*,†; Leiguarda, Ramón C. MD*; Bär, Karl-Jürgen MD, PhD; Guinjoan, Salvador M. MD, PhD*,†,¶

Cognitive and Behavioral Neurology: December 2011 - Volume 24 - Issue 4 - p 194–203
doi: 10.1097/WNN.0b013e31824007e9
Original Studies

Objective: The objective of the study was to determine whether patients with schizophrenia and their unaffected first-degree relatives have abnormal autonomic nervous system (ANS) responses to social cognition tasks.

Background: Social cognition impairments are significant in schizophrenia. ANS activity has been shown to be abnormal in schizophrenia patients, and some of the abnormalities seem to be shared by patients’ unaffected relatives.

Method: Heart rate variability (HRV) was measured at rest and during social cognition tasks, in patients with schizophrenia, their nonpsychotic first-degree relatives, and matched healthy controls (n=19 in each group).

Results: Social cognition tasks induced a shortening of the RR interval in unaffected relatives, but not in patients. Social cognition tasks generated decreases in high-frequency (indicating cardiac vagal activity) and low-frequency (reflecting predominantly sympathetic activity) HRV in patients. In relatives, the decrease occurred in the high-frequency component only. Low-frequency HRV was higher in patients during a theory of mind task than a control task. These changes were not observed in the controls.

Conclusions: Social cognitive tasks induce a pattern of peripheral autonomic activity different from that seen in generic arousal responses, and this pattern is abnormal in schizophrenia patients. Autonomic abnormalities in unaffected first-degree relatives seem restricted to the parasympathetic division of the ANS.

*Fundación Lucha contra Enfermedades Neurológicas de la Infancia

Buenos Aires, Consejo Nacional de Investigaciones Científicas y Técnicas

Department of Neurophysiology, University of Buenos Aires School of Psychology, Argentina

Institute of Neurology, University College London, UK

Department of Psychiatry, Universitätsklinikum Jena, Friedrich-Schiller-Universität, Jena, Germany

§Department of Medicine, Universidad Católica Argentina, Buenos Aires, Argentina

Funding for this study was provided by the Argentine Agencia Nacional de Promoción Científica y Tecnológica [grant number PICT-2007-01643 to SMG] Ministry of Science, Department of Science, Technology and Productive Innovation. The authors declare no conflicts of interest.

O.I.J. is a medical student research fellow from FLENI. D.D.A. is a doctoral student fellow from CONICET. S.D.G. M.C.M. is a doctoral student fellow from the Agencia. M.N.C. is a doctoral student fellow from CONICET.

Reprints: Salvador M. Guinjoan, MD, PhD, Section of Cognitive Neurology and Neuropsychiatry, Fundación Lucha contra Enfermedades Neurológicas de la Infancia, Montañeses 2325 8th floor, C1428AQK Buenos Aires, Argentina (e-mail

Received July 5, 2010

Accepted October 21, 2011

© 2011 Lippincott Williams & Wilkins, Inc.