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Schizophr Bull. 2011 Jul;37(4):716-26. doi: 10.1093/schbul/sbr055.

Visual context processing deficits in schizophrenia: effects of deafness and disorganization.

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School of Social Welfare, University at Albany, 135 Western Avenue, Albany, NY 12203, USA.


Visual illusions allow for strong tests of perceptual functioning. Perceptual impairments can produce superior task performance on certain tasks (i.e., more veridical perception), thereby avoiding generalized deficit confounds while tapping mechanisms that are largely outside of conscious control. Using a task based on the Ebbinghaus illusion, a perceptual phenomenon where the perceived size of a central target object is affected by the size of surrounding inducers, we tested hypotheses related to visual integration in deaf (n = 31) and hearing (n = 34) patients with schizophrenia. In past studies, psychiatrically healthy samples displayed increased visual integration relative to schizophrenia samples and thus were less able to correctly judge target sizes. Deafness, and especially the use of sign language, leads to heightened sensitivity to peripheral visual cues and increased sensitivity to visual context. Therefore, relative to hearing subjects, deaf subjects were expected to display increased context sensitivity (ie, a more normal illusion effect as evidenced by a decreased ability to correctly judge central target sizes). Confirming the hypothesis, deaf signers were significantly more sensitive to the illusion than nonsigning hearing patients. Moreover, an earlier age of sign language acquisition, higher levels of linguistic ability, and shorter illness duration were significantly related to increased context sensitivity. As predicted, disorganization was associated with reduced context sensitivity for all subjects. The primary implications of these data are that perceptual organization impairment in schizophrenia is plastic and that it is related to a broader failure in coordinating cognitive activity.

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