Studies of visual backward masking have frequently revealed an elevated masking threshold in schizophrenia. This finding has frequently been interpreted as indicating a low-level visual deficit. However, more recent models suggest that masking may also involve late and higher-level integrative processes, while leaving intact early bottom-up visual processing.
To test the hypothesis that the backward-masking deficit in schizophrenia corresponds to a deficit in the late stages of conscious perception, whereas the subliminal processing of masked stimuli is fully preserved.
Twenty-eight patients with schizophrenia and 28 normal control subjects performed 2 backward-masking experiments. We used Arabic digits as stimuli and varied quasi-continuously the interval with a subsequent mask, thus allowing us to progressively unmask the stimuli. We finely quantified their degree of visibility using objective and subjective measures to evaluate the threshold duration for access to consciousness. We also studied the priming effect caused by the variably masked numbers in a comparison task performed on a subsequently presented and highly visible target number.
The threshold delay between the digit and mask necessary for the conscious perception of the masked stimulus was longer in patients compared with controls. This higher consciousness threshold in patients was confirmed by an objective and a subjective measure, and both measures were highly correlated for the patients and controls. However, subliminal priming of masked numbers was effective and identical in patients and controls.
Access to conscious report of masked stimuli is impaired in schizophrenia, whereas fast bottom-up processing of the same stimuli, as assessed by subliminal priming, is preserved. These findings suggest a high-level origin of the masking deficit in schizophrenia, although they leave open for further research its exact relation to previously identified bottom-up visual processing abnormalities.