New research has uncovered why individuals with schizophrenia may have difficulties perceiving emotions.

Scientists from UQ’s Queensland Brain Institute have discovered differences in brain activation between individuals with schizophrenia and healthy controls on emotional perception tasks.

Lead author Dr Ilvana Dzafic says perceiving emotion is a common problem for people affected by schizophrenia, but the underlying cognitive causes were not previously known.

“We wanted to study emotion perception, an aspect of social cognition, which we know is an independent predictor of poor functional outcome in schizophrenia, beyond the contributions of other symptoms, IQ and cognitive measures,” said Dr Dzafic.

“Problems with emotion perception can impact on daily functioning, including in maintaining friendships, relationships, and employment, leading to community disengagement.

“We explored how emotion perception is affected by predictive coding – the ability of the brain to make predictions about our world through our previous experiences and knowledge. Healthy brains update prior expectations by incorporating new sensory evidence.”

To test how prior expectations affected emotion perception, study participants were either cued with an emotion that they would later also perceive, or cued with an incongruent emotion.

“We found that when the cues were congruent, individuals with schizophrenia were worse at anticipating the correct emotion.”

During the perception of anticipated emotions individuals with schizophrenia were found to have decreased brain activity in the inferior frontal gyrus.

Difficulty in processing anticipated emotions was associated with brain dysconnectivity in the right amygdala.

“By efficiently fulfilling prior expectations of how others feel and act, healthy people are able to filter out information about people’s emotional dispositions to more easily navigate their social worlds,” said Dr Dzafic.

“This study helps us better understand the difficulties people with schizophrenia encounter in perceiving emotions, as they may require greater cognitive resources to accurately filter out extraneous emotional information.”

“However, we also found that individuals with schizophrenia were just as good at detecting unexpected emotions, with no difference in brain connectivity to healthy controls.

“The ability to detect unexpected changes in one’s dynamic social environment is an adaptive behaviour in potentially advantageous or threatening situations.”

The research paper is accessible here.