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Reward processing electrophysiology in schizophrenia: Effects of age and illness phase.



Reward processing abnormalities may underlie characteristic pleasure and motivational impairments in schizophrenia. Some neural measures of reward processing show age-related modulation, highlighting the importance of considering age effects on reward sensitivity. We compared event-related potentials (ERPs) reflecting reward anticipation (stimulus-preceding negativity, SPN) and evaluation (reward positivity, RewP; late positive potential, LPP) across individuals with schizophrenia (SZ) and healthy controls (HC), with an emphasis on examining the effects of chronological age, brain age (i.e., predicted age based on neurobiological measures), and illness phase.


Subjects underwent EEG while completing a slot-machine task for which rewards were not dependent on performance accuracy, speed, or response preparation. Slot-machine task EEG responses were compared between 54 SZ and 54 HC individuals, ages 19 to 65. Reward-related ERPs were analyzed with respect to chronological age, categorically-defined illness phase (early; ESZ versus chronic schizophrenia; CSZ), and were used to model brain age relative to chronological age.


Illness phase-focused analyses indicated there were no group differences in average SPN or RewP amplitudes. However, a group × reward outcome interaction revealed that ESZ differed from HC in later outcome processing, reflected by greater LPP responses following loss versus reward (a reversal of the HC pattern). While brain age estimates did not differ among groups, depressive symptoms in SZ were associated with older brain age estimates while controlling for negative symptoms.


ESZ and CSZ did not differ from HC in reward anticipation or early outcome processing during a cognitively undemanding reward task, highlighting areas of preserved functioning. However, ESZ showed altered later reward outcome evaluation, pointing to selective reward deficits during the early illness phase of schizophrenia. Further, an association between ERP-derived brain age and depressive symptoms in SZ extends prior findings linking depression with reward-related ERP blunting. Taken together, both illness phase and age may impact reward processing among SZ, and brain aging may offer a promising, novel marker of reward dysfunction that warrants further study.

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