Stress and Emotional Reactivity

Project summary

This project is designed to improve our understanding of how and when individuals vulnerable for schizophrenia respond to stress and emotionally-charged events. Stress has long been hypothesized to play an important role in the expression of vulnerability for schizophrenia and it remains a key component in theories of schizophrenia. Despite the prominent role attributed to stress, its actual contribution to the expression and course of schizophrenia has yet to be clearly specified. By focusing on patients in the prodromal and first episode phases of illness, there is the opportunity to examine how stress and emotional reactivity might contribute to the onset and progression of illness as well as to school/work, social and daily functioning. Comparisons between patients across early and chronic phases of illness can provide some indication as to when some abnormalities might develop.

Current status: Completed


Primary Investigator: Cindy Yee-Bradbury

Other Investigators: Peter J. Lang, Ph.D. (University of Florida) and Shelley E. Taylor, Ph.D., (UCLA Department of Psychology). Kristopher Ian Mathis, Gretchen Sholty, Jane Sun, Terrance Williams and Peter Bachman.



Emotional and motivational dysfunction is fundamental to schizophrenia, and yet the precise nature and scope of the associated deficits are not well understood. One of the primary aims of this project was to assess the integrity of emotional responding from the perspective of its underlying motivational systems in patients with schizophrenia. Specifically, evaluative, somatic, and autonomic responses were measured during viewing of pictures with varied emotional content to examine core motivational states during the prodromal, first-episode and chronic phases of schizophrenia.

Regardless of phase of illness, patients showed a robust and normal pattern of affective modulation across response systems, suggesting that identified deficits in emotion and motivation likely involve higher order processes (Yee et al., submitted).

In addition, Sun et al. (submitted) determined that heart rate variability (HRV), a measure of parasympathetic activity, moderates the relationship between social cognition and role functioning in chronic schizophrenia patients.

Among those with poor HRV, it appears that because these patients may be less behaviorally and physiologically flexible, strong social cognitive skills are more critical for performing well at work, living independently and engaging in self care.

For patients who show greater cardiovascular adaptability, better functional outcome may be less contingent upon social cognitive skills, as these individuals may be more capable of taking advantage of other resources.

Papers are in preparation to report on group differences in stress reactivity as a function of clinical state and phase of illness, as reflected by resting levels of cortisol and heart rate activity, as well as on key variables that serve to moderate the stress response, including social support, coping skills, life events and early life adversity.