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Recent evidence suggests that individuals with schizophrenia (SZ) are impaired in their ability to imitate gestures and movements generated by others. This impairment in imitation may be linked to difficulties in generating and maintaining internal representations in working memory (WM). We used a novel quantitative technique to investigate the relationship between WM and imitation ability. SZ outpatients and demographically matched healthy control (HC) participants imitated hand gestures. In Experiment 1, participants imitated single gestures. In Experiment 2, they imitated sequences of 2 gestures, either while viewing the gesture online or after a short delay that forced the use of WM. In Experiment 1, imitation errors were increased in SZ compared with HC. Experiment 2 revealed a significant interaction between imitation ability and WM. SZ produced more errors and required more time to imitate when that imitation depended upon WM compared with HC. Moreover, impaired imitation from WM was significantly correlated with the severity of negative symptoms but not with positive symptoms. In sum, gesture imitation was impaired in schizophrenia, especially when the production of an imitation depended upon WM and when an imitation entailed multiple actions. Such a deficit may have downstream consequences for new skill learning.
The social significance of imitation is that it provides internal tools for understanding the actions of others by simulating or forming internal representations of these actions. Imitation plays a central role in human social behavior by mediating diverse forms of social learning. However, imitation and simulation ability in schizophrenia has not been adequately addressed. The major aim of the present study was to investigate imitation ability in schizophrenia patients and healthy individuals by examining simple motor imitation that involved the replication of meaningless manual and oral gestures, and the imitation of emotional facial expressions, which has implications for mentalizing. A secondary aim of the present study was to investigate the relationships among imitation ability, social functioning, and working memory. Subjects were asked to mimic hand gestures, mouth movements, and facial expressions of others, online. Clinical symptoms, social competence, and working memory were also assessed. Patients with schizophrenia were significantly impaired on all imitation tasks. Imitation errors were significantly correlated with reduced social competence and increased negative symptoms. However, imitation ability was only weakly associated with working memory. To summarize, the present study examined the ability of patients with schizophrenia to imitate the behaviors demonstrated by others. The results indicate a fundamental impairment in imitation ability in schizophrenia and implicate a possible difficulty in simulation. Further research to determine the neural and developmental origins of this difficulty could be extremely helpful in elucidating the role of simulation in schizophrenia and to establish the complex relationships among mental representation, imitation, and social cognition.