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Working memory (WM) deficits in schizophrenia (SCZ) have been linked to impairments in the encoding phase that are associated with aberrant neuronal functioning. Similar abnormalities have been observed in unaffected first-degree relatives (REL) and are thus discussed as candidate endophenotypes. The process of WM consolidation – i.e. the formation of durable WM representations – is assumed to be impaired in SCZ, but no study has investigated WM consolidation and neuronal correlates of visual WM encoding in REL before.
We examined whole-brain activation during the encoding phase with an event-related functional magnetic resonance imaging study design in 25 SCZ subjects, 22 REL subjects, and 25 healthy controls. Subjects performed a visual masked change detection task that assessed WM performance and consolidation.
SCZ showed deficient WM performance indicating an impairment consolidation process, accompanied by broad neuronal hypoactivation, most prominently in frontal brain regions, as well as increased activity of the anterior cingulate during the encoding phase. REL showed decreased neuronal activity in the middle and medial frontal gyrus and increased activity in the precentral gyrus and insula during encoding, but no significant behavioral deficits were observed. In respect of given consolidation times, REL showed a shift from decreased frontal activity at short time intervals to increased frontal activity at longer time intervals.
Findings suggest WM consolidation may be slowed in REL so that the deployment of compensatory neuronal resources during encoding is needed to assure proper WM performance. This supports the view of WM-related neuronal dysfunctions as a potential endophenotypic marker.
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