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Social Functioning Studies

Schizophrenia as a Disorder of the Social Brain. 

Cognitive deficits in schizophrenia are associated with poor social outcome. We hypothesized that an inability to use mental representation to guide behavior was detrimental to social interactions. Social isolation and reduced social functioning in schizophrenia present a very difficult barrier that prevents good prognosis and outcome. Our approach to tackle this problem is similar to how we approached cognitive deficits. We parsed the social impairments into theoretically-constrained components that we could investigate separately: social perception, social interpretation and pro-social actions

First, we examined social perception on multiple levels, from biological motion perception to emotion perception. one of the most prominent problems appears to be a tendency to falsely detect social meaning (e.g. people, intentions, social actions) when there is none. For example, upon seeing random dots moving, schizophrenia patients are likely to perceive a person engaged in an action and this false detection of living agents is accompanied by increased activity of the superior temporal sulcus. Both behavioral and neuroimaging results suggest that the patients with schizophrenia are not necessarily impaired in perceiving the ‘signal’ but there may be an increased background ‘noise’ is

Abnormal perception of agency, intentions, actions and emotions are manifested across multiple domains. Patients with schizophrenia and high-risk individuals have difficulty with emotion perception regardless of the types of stimuli. Interestingly, they seem unable to use physiological and interoceptive cues to guide their social decisions, and make abnormal social trait judgments. With respect to social interactions and prosocial behavior, they have difficulty learning from past mistakes to generate appropriate social behavior.

One of the reasons for social interactional difficulty may be that individuals with schizophrenia are impaired in mental simulation, a process by which internal representations of external events such as movements and actions of others are generated and utilized. Simulation of the external world may provide a mechanism by which we model behaviors of others, supporting rapid action understanding and deficits in mental simulation could lead to misunderstanding of actions of others. Social understanding may be supported by mirrormechanism that bridges perception and action, self and other. We have shown that imitation and simulation of other people’s behavior are impaired in schizophrenia and that this simulation impairment may indicate abnormal activation of the social brain network that includes the inferior frontal cortex, superior temporal sulcus and the inferior temporal lobule. However, we also found that practice improved simulation over time and therefore, social skills training via simulation might provide an effective method for improving social outcome in schizophrenia, and eventually, this approach has led to our virtual reality social skills training program.


Representative papers:

  • Kim, J., Park, S., & Blake, R.B. (2011). Perception of biological motion in schizophrenia and healthy individuals: a behavioral and fMRI study. PLOS One, 6(5): e19971. PDF version
  • Park, S., Matthews, N.L., & Gibson, C. (2008). Imitation, simulation and schizophrenia. Schizophrenia Bulletin, 34 (4): 698-707.  PDF version
  • Peterman, J.S., Christensen, A., Giese, M., & Park, S. (2013). Extraction of social information from gait in schizophrenia. Psychological Medicine, 28: 1-10. PDF version
  • Thakkar, K.N., Peterman, J.S., & Park, S. (2014). Altered brain activation during action imitation and observation in schizophrenia: a translational approach for studying social dysfunction. American Journal of Psychiatry. 171:539-548. PDF version
  • Dean, D., Scott, J., & Park, S. (2021). Interpersonal Coordination in Schizophrenia: A scoping review of the literature. Schizophrenia Bulletin.  PDF version