Autonomic functioning in acute and chronic schizophrenia



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The present research was concerned with comparing the autonomic functioning, at rest and in response to stimuli, of three groups: 26 female acute schizophrenics, 25 female chronic schizophrenics, and 31 female normal controls. The stimuli were achromatic still pictures and colored motion pictures of the subject himself and an unknown "stranger-control" presented in counterbalanced order to each subject. The autonomic variables of conductance, GSR, respiration rate, and heart rate were recorded continuously. With regard to the levels analysis, the analysis of variance was employed as a general analysis and analysis of variance contrasts were used to test directly each hypothesis. Differences in magnitude of response were determined by the analysis of covariance which corrected for differences in resting levels between the three groups. Analysis of covariance contrasts were used to test directly each hypothesis regarding reactions to stimuli. The acute schizophrenic subjects were found to have higher levels of autonomic functioning with regard to heart rate, respiration rate, and continuous responsivity after stimulation (frequency of GSR's). There were no apparent disturbances in conductance level, an unexpected finding since this measure is typically viewed as assessing the affective components of response. The magnitude of response was typically greater in the acute group as compared to the other groups. Furthermore, discriminate responses between "loaded" and "neutral" stimuli were absent in the acute group. The findings regarding the chronic schizophrenic subjects are in contrast to the previous experimental literature. With regard to levels of autonomic functioning, no disturbances were apparent, that is, the chronic subjects were essentially no different from normal controls. In response to stimuli, the chronic subjects showed no response deficits in terms of over responsivity or diminished responsivity, with the exception of respiration rate which was slower in the chronic group than in the other groups. These findings are interpreted to mean that disturbances in autonomic functioning are more likely to be found in the acute stages of schizophrenia. As the illness becomes more chronic, a homeostatic equilabrating process, disrupted in acute schizophrenia, is apparently regained and allows for a more adaptive accessability and responsivity to the environment, perhaps more so than the overt behavior of the chronic schizophrenic patient would suggest.