BACKGROUND - Anomalous visual perception is a common feature of schizophrenia plausibly associated with impaired social cognition that, in turn, could affect social behavior. Past research suggests impairment in biological motion perception in schizophrenia. Behavioral and functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) experiments were conducted to verify the existence of this impairment, to clarify its perceptual basis, and to identify accompanying neural concomitants of those deficits.
METHODOLOGY/FINDINGS - In Experiment 1, we measured ability to detect biological motion portrayed by point-light animations embedded within masking noise. Experiment 2 measured discrimination accuracy for pairs of point-light biological motion sequences differing in the degree of perturbation of the kinematics portrayed in those sequences. Experiment 3 measured BOLD signals using event-related fMRI during a biological motion categorization task. Compared to healthy individuals, schizophrenia patients performed significantly worse on both the detection (Experiment 1) and discrimination (Experiment 2) tasks. Consistent with the behavioral results, the fMRI study revealed that healthy individuals exhibited strong activation to biological motion, but not to scrambled motion in the posterior portion of the superior temporal sulcus (STSp). Interestingly, strong STSp activation was also observed for scrambled or partially scrambled motion when the healthy participants perceived it as normal biological motion. On the other hand, STSp activation in schizophrenia patients was not selective to biological or scrambled motion.
CONCLUSION - Schizophrenia is accompanied by difficulties discriminating biological from non-biological motion, and associated with those difficulties are altered patterns of neural responses within brain area STSp. The perceptual deficits exhibited by schizophrenia patients may be an exaggerated manifestation of neural events within STSp associated with perceptual errors made by healthy observers on these same tasks. The present findings fit within the context of theories of delusion involving perceptual and cognitive processes.