Nav: Home

Study locates brain areas for understanding metaphors in healthy and schizophrenic people

September 06, 2019

Scientists have used MRI scanners to discover the parts of the brain which understand metaphors, in both healthy volunteers and people with schizophrenia. They found that people with schizophrenia employ different brain circuits to overcome initial lack of understanding. The researchers hope this identification of brain reactions and affected areas may help people with schizophrenia to better comprehend metaphors in everyday speech. This work is presented at the ECNP congress in Copenhagen.

People with schizophrenia have often problems in understanding some common figurative expressions, such as humour, irony, and spoken metaphors. They tend to take the metaphor at its literal meaning (for example, "a leap in the dark" may imply jumping and darkness for someone with schizophrenia): it may take some time for them to arrive at an understanding of what the metaphor is meant to imply. There has been little attempt to understand why this might be so at a neurological level.

A group of Polish and Czech researcher examined 30 patients who had been diagnosed with schizophrenia and 30 healthy controls. While undergoing a brain scan in a high-sensitivity MRI, they read 90 brief stories. 30 of the stories had a metaphorical ending, 30 had an absurd/nonsense ending, and 30 had a neutral ending (i.e. a literal ending). The scientists monitored brain activity while the subjects were reacting to the stories.

They found that compared to controls, the patient group showed increased brain activity in certain areas, but lower brain activity in others. For example, the healthy group showed brain activation in the prefrontal cortex (near the front of the brain) and left amygdala (at the centre of the brain, near the top of the brain stem), implying that these are the brain areas where metaphors are normally processed. Instead, schizophrenia patients showed a decreased activation in the temporal suculus (an area ascending from the low central brain towards the back of the head). Researcher Martin Jáni, from the Jagiellonian University, Krakow, Poland said:

"Previous researchers studied brain areas that are connected to impaired metaphor understanding in schizophrenia, so comparing metaphors with literal statements. However, by adding the absurd punchline, we were able to explore the stage at which the deficit occurs. We also used everyday metaphors, which would be easily understood.

We found that biggest changes in brain activity in schizophrenia patients occur during the basic stage of metaphor processing, that is when a person needs to recognize there is incongruity between the opening sentence and the punchline. These activated areas of the brain are very different to the brain areas activated in healthy patients, as if the brain is struggling to find a compensatory mechanism, to bypass the circuits normally used to understand metaphor".

It's likely that this inability to understand the sort of conventional metaphors we use in everyday life is socially isolating for people with schizophrenia. While this at the research stage, our hope is that we can develop practical skills in patients with schizophrenia - and indeed the people who know them - which will help them understand the speech the way it was intended"

Commenting, Dr Emilio Fernandez-Egea, University of Cambridge said;

"Understanding the neural basis of social cognition are of great relevance for people with schizophrenia. These deficits are often overlooked, despite the impact on the general functioning and in the ability to find and maintain social relationship and work. Expanding our knowledge of this often neglected domain will improve the recovery process in this population".

This is an independent comment; Dr Fernandez-Egea was not involved in this work.

EXAMPLES:

The metaphors themselves were commonly used in everyday Polish speech. They were incorporated in brief stories, such as:

Metaphor

On the street, man on the bike accidentally hits a pedestrian "I am sorry, are you alright?" asked the cyclist, to which the pedestrian replied "No, I am sorry, I shouldn't walk with my head in the clouds".

Comment: People with schizophrenia had more difficulty in pulling the metaphorical meaning away from the literal "head in the clouds" meaning.

Neutral

A man comes back home after unusually long day at work. His partner asks "Why are you so late? The dinner is already cold" He replies "I am very sorry. I had to finish an important project".

Comment: This is literal - there's no hidden meaning here.

Absurd (nonsensical)

Two colleagues are talking at work. One says "I can't believe that John is earning money than me for the same position!" The other says "The copy machine broke yesterday".

Comment: In this case the reply is not relevant to the question.
-end-
Type of study: Not peer reviewed/experimental study/people

European College of Neuropsychopharmacology

Related Schizophrenia Articles:

Dietary supplement may help with schizophrenia
A dietary supplement, sarcosine, may help with schizophrenia as part of a holistic approach complementing antipsychotic medication, according to a UCL researcher.
Schizophrenia: Adolescence is the game-changer
Schizophrenia may be related to the deletion syndrome. However, not everyone who has the syndrome necessarily develops psychotic symptoms.
Study suggests overdiagnosis of schizophrenia
In a small study of patients referred to the Johns Hopkins Early Psychosis Intervention Clinic (EPIC), Johns Hopkins Medicine researchers report that about half the people referred to the clinic with a schizophrenia diagnosis didn't actually have schizophrenia.
The ways of wisdom in schizophrenia
Researchers at UC San Diego School of Medicine report that persons with schizophrenia scored lower on a wisdom assessment than non-psychiatric comparison participants, but that there was considerable variability in levels of wisdom, and those with higher scores displayed fewer psychotic symptoms.
Recognizing the uniqueness of different individuals with schizophrenia
Individuals diagnosed with schizophrenia differ greatly from one another. Researchers from Radboud university medical center, along with colleagues from England and Norway, have demonstrated that very few identical brain differences are shared amongst different patients.
Resynchronizing neurons to erase schizophrenia
Today, a decisive step in understanding schizophrenia has been taken.
Genetics researchers close in on schizophrenia
Researchers at the MRC Centre for Neuropsychiatric Genetics and Genomics at Cardiff University have discovered 50 new gene regions that increase the risk of developing schizophrenia.
Looking for the origins of schizophrenia
Schizophrenia may be related to neurodevelopment changes, including brain's inability to create the appropriate vascular system, according to new study resulted from a partnership between the D'Or Institute for Research and Education, the University of Chile and the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro (UFRJ).
Researchers uncover novel mechanism behind schizophrenia
An international team of researchers led by a Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine scientist has uncovered a novel mechanism in which a protein--neuregulin 3--controls how key neurotransmitters are released in the brain during schizophrenia.
A new genetic marker for schizophrenia
Japanese scientists find a rare genetic variant that shows strong association with schizophrenia.
More Schizophrenia News and Schizophrenia Current Events

Best Science Podcasts 2019

We have hand picked the best science podcasts for 2019. Sit back and enjoy new science podcasts updated daily from your favorite science news services and scientists.
Now Playing: TED Radio Hour

Rethinking Anger
Anger is universal and complex: it can be quiet, festering, justified, vengeful, and destructive. This hour, TED speakers explore the many sides of anger, why we need it, and who's allowed to feel it. Guests include psychologists Ryan Martin and Russell Kolts, writer Soraya Chemaly, former talk radio host Lisa Fritsch, and business professor Dan Moshavi.
Now Playing: Science for the People

#538 Nobels and Astrophysics
This week we start with this year's physics Nobel Prize awarded to Jim Peebles, Michel Mayor, and Didier Queloz and finish with a discussion of the Nobel Prizes as a way to award and highlight important science. Are they still relevant? When science breakthroughs are built on the backs of hundreds -- and sometimes thousands -- of people's hard work, how do you pick just three to highlight? Join host Rachelle Saunders and astrophysicist, author, and science communicator Ethan Siegel for their chat about astrophysics and Nobel Prizes.