Background. It has been argued recently that the attentional dysfunction in schizophrenia occurs as a result of an inability to inhibit automatic attentional shifts to compelling external stimuli. However, this hypothesis is based on performance on paradigms that require overt or covert shifts of spatial attention.
Method. We investigated responses to foveally presented stimuli in patients with schizophrenia and healthy controls as they performed unidimensional and bidimensional versions of the flanker task. In both tasks, centrally presented target stimuli were flanked by peripheral stimuli that were either congruent or incongruent with the behavioural goal of the subject. In the bidimensional task, the flanking stimuli could be congruent and incongruent on multiple stimulus characteristics.
Results. On the unidimensional flanker task, the behavioural goal modulated the responses of the schizophrenia group such that response times (RTs) to target stimuli that were flanked by congruent stimuli were faster than RTs to target stimuli flanked by incongruent stimuli. However, on the bidimensional flanker task, the responses of schizophrenia patients were no longer constrained by the behavioural goal and RTs to both congruent and incongruent stimuli were equivalent.
Conclusions. It appears that the attentional dysfunction in schizophrenia may reflect difficulty in resolving multiple and simultaneous response conflicts. These findings suggest a possible role for the anterior cingulate cortex in the attentional impairments associated with schizophrenia.