BACKGROUND: It has been suggested that some psychotic symptoms reflect ‘aberrant salience’, related to dysfunctional reward learning. To test this hypothesis we investigated whether patients with schizophrenia showed impaired learning of task-relevant stimulusreinforcement
associations in the presence of distracting task-irrelevant cues.
METHODS: We tested 20 medicated patients with schizophrenia and 17 controls on a reaction time
game, the Salience Attribution Test. In this game, participants made a speeded response to earn money in the presence of conditioned stimuli (CSs). Each CS comprised two
visual dimensions, colour and form. Probability of reinforcement varied over one of these dimensions (task-relevant), but not the other (task-irrelevant). Measures of adaptive and aberrant motivational salience were calculated on the basis of latency and subjective reinforcement probability rating differences over the task-relevant and task-irrelevant dimensions respectively.
RESULTS: Participants rated reinforcement significantly more
likely and responded significantly faster on high-probability reinforced relative to lowprobability
reinforced trials, representing adaptive motivational salience. Patients exhibited reduced adaptive salience relative to controls, but the two groups did not differ
in terms of aberrant salience. Patients with delusions exhibited significantly greater aberrant salience than those without delusions, and aberrant salience also correlated with negative symptoms. In the controls, aberrant salience correlated significantly with
‘introvertive anhedonia’ schizotypy.
CONCLUSIONS: These data support the hypothesis that aberrant salience is related to the presence of delusions in medicated patients with schizophrenia, but are also suggestive of a link with negative symptoms. The relationship between aberrant salience and psychotic symptoms warrants further investigation in unmedicated patients.