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Posted 07.29.05

Psychotic-Like Symptoms Brought About by Emotional Deficiencies, MU Study Finds

Discovery May Lead to Preventative Treatment of Disorders Such as Schizophrenia

COLUMBIA, MO -- People with severe mental illness, such as schizophrenia, often exhibit psychotic-like symptoms such as hallucinations or delusions. Traditionally, researchers have thought these symptoms were associated with cognitive deficiencies like poor memory, attention disorders and lack of problem solving abilities. However, a new study by a University of Missouri-Columbia researcher found that these symptoms may be caused by emotional deficiencies, such as poor stress coping strategies. This discovery could lead to the development of new preventative treatments for these psychotic-like symptoms.

"Imagine someone with a delusion that he has another person living inside his body," said John Kerns, an MU assistant psychology professor. "You might think someone like that would be cognitively impaired, possibly delirious or showing dementia. In fact, people with delusions are in many ways as logical (or illogical) as other people. So, instead of cognitive deficits, it looks like these symptoms might be associated with emotion deficits."

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In the study, Kerns asked 34 people who were classified as at-risk for psychosis and 56 control participants fill out questionnaires that assessed three traits related to people's ability to process and use emotional information: (1) affect intensity, which measures the intensity of one's emotions (2) attention to emotions, which measures how frequently people pay attention to their feelings and (3) clarity of emotions, which measures how well people can identify with their feelings. Kerns then conducted additional tests of all participants' emotions, personalities and moods.

Kerns found that the psychotic-symptoms group reported significantly less emotional clarity than the control group, yet they experienced greater attention to emotions and greater neuroticism. Overall, the at-risk group was classified as emotionally overwhelmed, which Kerns said might mean that these people tend to have poor mood regulation and poor stress coping strategies.

"This study provides hope of being able to identify people who might be at-risk for developing schizophrenia and then provide preventative treatment in order to prevent the disorder from occurring in the first place," Kerns said.

Kerns' article is in press with the Journal of Abnormal Psychology.

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