Irony is a type of figurative language in which the literal meaning of the expression is the opposite of what the speaker intends to communicate. Even though schizophrenic patients are known as typically impaired in irony comprehension and in the underlying neural functions, to date no one has explored the neural correlates of figurative language comprehension in first-degree relatives of schizophrenic patients. In the present study, we examined the neural correlates of irony understanding in schizophrenic patients and in unaffected first-degree relatives of patients compared to healthy adults with functional MRI. Our aim was to investigate if possible alterations of the neural circuits supporting irony comprehension in first-degree relatives of patients with schizophrenia would fulfill the familiality criterion of an endophenotype. We examined 12 schizophrenic patients, 12 first-degree relatives of schizophrenia patients and 12 healthy controls with functional MRI while they were performing irony and control tasks. Different phases of irony processing were examined, such as context processing and ironic statement comprehension. Patients had significantly more difficulty understanding irony than controls or relatives. Patients also showed markedly different neural activation pattern compared to controls in both stages of irony processing. Although no significant differences were found in the performance of the irony tasks between the control group and the relative group, during the fMRI analysis, the relatives showed stronger brain activity in the left dorsolateral prefrontal cortex during the context processing phase of irony tasks than the control group. However, the controls demonstrated higher activations in the left dorsomedial prefrontal cortex and in the right inferior frontal gyrus during the ironic statement phase of the irony tasks than the relative group. Our results show that despite good task performance, first-degree relatives of schizophrenia patients had alterations in the neural circuits during irony processing. Thus, we suggest that neural alteration of irony comprehension could be a potential endophenotypic marker of schizophrenia.
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