Psychological Medicine

Original Articles

Visual masking by object substitution in schizophrenia

M. F. Greena1a2 c1, J. K. Wynna1a2, B. Breitmeyera3, K. I. Mathisa1 and K. H. Nuechterleina2a4

a1 VA Desert Pacific Mental Illness Research, Education, and Clinical Center, Los Angeles, CA, USA

a2 Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior, UCLA, Los Angeles, CA, USA

a3 Department of Psychology, University of Houston, Houston, TX, USA

a4 Department of Psychology, UCLA, Los Angeles, CA, USA


Background Schizophrenia patients demonstrate impairment on visual backward masking, a measure of early visual processing. Most visual masking paradigms involve two distinct processes, an early fast-acting component associated with object formation and a later component that acts through object substitution. So far, masking paradigms used in schizophrenia research have been unable to separate these two processes.

Method We administered three visual processing paradigms (location masking with forward and backward masking, four-dot backward masking and a cuing task) to 136 patients with schizophrenia or schizoaffective disorder and 79 healthy controls. A psychophysical procedure was used to match subjects on identification of an unmasked target prior to location masking. Location masking interrupts object formation, four-dot masking task works through masking by object substitution and the cuing task measures iconic decay.

Results Patients showed impairment on location masking after being matched for input threshold, similar to previous reports. After correcting for age, patients showed lower performance on four-dot masking than controls, but the groups did not differ on the cuing task.

Conclusions Patients with schizophrenia showed lower performance when masking was specific to object substitution. The difference in object substitution masking was not due to a difference in rate of iconic decay, which was comparable in the two groups. These results suggest that, despite normal iconic decay rates, individuals with schizophrenia show impairment in a paradigm of masking by object substitution that did not also involve disruption of object formation.

(Received May 19 2010)

(Revised September 24 2010)

(Accepted September 25 2010)

(Online publication November 16 2010)


c1 Address for correspondence: M. F. Green, Ph.D., 300 Medical Plaza, Rm 2263, Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior, UCLA, Los Angeles, CA 90095–6968, USA. (Email: