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Enhanced switching and familial susceptibility for psychosis

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Working Memory and Task-Switching are essential components of cognitive control, which underlies many symptoms evident across multiple neuropsychiatric disorders, including psychotic and mood disorders. Vulnerability to these disorders has a substantial genetic component, suggesting that clinically unaffected first-degree relatives may carry some vulnerability-related traits. Converging evidence from animal and human studies demonstrates that dopamine transmission, striatal and frontal brain regions, and attention and switching behaviors are essential components of a multilevel circuit involved in salience, and disruptions in that circuit may lead to features of psychosis. Yet, it is possible that unaffected relatives may also possess characteristics that protect against development of illness. We hypothesized that reduced switch cost in a cued task-switching task, may be a behavioral expression of this "resilience" phenotype that will be observable in unaffected relatives.


We tested a large community sample (n = 536) via the web, to assess different subcomponents of cognitive control, including task-switching and working memory, as well as risk-taking, among individuals who report having an affected relative with a psychotic or mood disorder.


Healthy individuals with suspected genetic risk due to a self-reported familial history of a psychotic disorder demonstrated better task-switching performance compared to healthy people without a psychiatrically ill relative and those with a relative with a mood disorder. This result was specific to illness status and task domain, in that individuals with a personal history of depression or anxiety did not show improved task-switching performance, and this improvement was selective to task-switching and not seen in other putative cognitive control domains (working memory or risk taking).


Although this study has limitations and independent replication is needed, these preliminary findings suggest a potential avenue for understanding susceptibility to these disorders by highlighting possible protective as well as vulnerability-related aspects of risk phenotypes.

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