Amy Pinkham & David L.
Penn talk with ScienceWatch.com and answer a few
questions about this month's Fast Moving Front in the field
Article: Implications for the neural basis of
social cognition for the study of
AE;Penn, DL;Perkins, DO;
Journal: AMER J PSYCHIAT, 160 (5): 815-824, MAY 2003
Addresses: Univ N Carolina, Dept Psychol, Davie Hall,CB
3270, Chapel Hill, NC 27599 USA.
Univ N Carolina, Dept Psychol, Chapel Hill, NC 27599
Univ N Carolina, Dept Psychiat, Chapel Hill, NC 27599 USA.
Why do you think your paper is highly
It reviews an area that has grown in interest in
schizophrenia research: social cognition. Also, it
is relevant to those interested in translational research, given its
focus on neural mechanisms.
Does it describe a new discovery, methodology, or
synthesis of knowledge?
It is more of a synthesis/review of a specific area. We wanted to get a
handle on the neural underpinnings of social cognition in schizophrenia. A
number of studies had investigated the neural mechanisms of social
cognitive processing in healthy individuals, and a few other studies had
begun to investigate these same neural circuits in schizophrenia.
David L. Penn
Not surprisingly, these early studies demonstrated abnormal neural
processing in schizophrenia. We felt the paper would have heuristic value
for us and other researchers by providing a theoretical model of social
cognitive impairment in schizophrenia in which deficits are subserved by
abnormal activation of key structures in the social cognitive network or
Would you summarize the significance of your
paper in layman's terms?
The paper summarizes the neural mechanisms underlying why individuals with
schizophrenia have difficulty processing social information. In other
words, what neural factors contribute to their problems in understanding
and perceiving others facial affect and intentions.
How did you become involved in this research and
were any particular problems encountered along the way?
I (David L. Penn) have been doing this research since I was a graduate
student at the University of Nebraska Lincoln in the late 1980s. At the
time, there was interest in cognition in schizophrenia. I wondered if there
was a domain of cognition more proximal to behavior; one that would help us
understand the social deficits of the disorder, which I think are the core
impairments of schizophrenia. The only problem I encountered early in my
career (and through the late 1990s) was skepticism from the scientific
community that social cognition was a worthy area of study. That has
changed, however, over the past decade, as more and more research has
demonstrated that social cognition is indeed closely related to social
behavior and that social cognition is distinct from general cognitive
Where do you see your research leading in the
I (David L. Penn) am working on two areas: first, how can we improve social
cognition in schizophrenia? We have developed a social cognition group
treatment, "social cognition and interaction training" (SCIT) that has,
thus far, displayed promising results in improving both social cognition
and social functioning in schizophrenia.
Second, we (Pinkham and Penn) are also exploring the
similarities/differences in social cognition in schizophrenia and
autism, a neurodevelopmental disorder that is
characterized by prominent deficits in social functioning and social
cognition. By comparing these two disorders, we hope to begin to clarify
the means by which two disorders with different developmental pathways
can have similar social cognitive outcomes. Further, this information
may not only shed light on the developmental neural mechanisms of social
cognition, but also offers the opportunity to inform our understanding
of abnormalities at the level of brain-behavior interactions in both
schizophrenia and autism.
Do you foresee any social or political implications
for your research?
Ultimately, we want to help people function better and enjoy a better
quality of life.
Amy Pinkham, Ph.D.
Brain Behavior Laboratory
Department of Psychiatry, Neuropsychiatry Section
University of Pennsylvania
Philadelphia, PA, USA
David L. Penn, Ph.D.
Department of Psychology
University of North Carolina
Chapel Hill, NC, USA
Keywords: social cognition, social cognitive
impairment in schizophrenia, schizophrenia research, translational
research, neural mechanisms, autism.