Background: Cognitive impairment is common with schizophrenia spectrum disorders. Cognitive remediation (CR) is effective in improving global cognition, but not all individuals benefit from this type of intervention. A better understanding of the potential mechanism of action of CR is needed. One proposed mechanism is reward learning (RL), the cognitive processes responsible for adapting behavior following positive or negative feedback. It is proposed that the structure of CR enhances RL and motivation to engage in increasingly challenging tasks, and this is a potential mechanism by which CR improves cognitive functioning in schizophrenia. Objective: Our primary objective is to examine reward processing in individuals with schizophrenia before and after completing CR and to compare this with a group of matched clinical controls. We will assess whether RL mediates the relationship between CR and improved cognitive function and reduced negative symptoms. Potential differences in social RL and nonsocial RL in individuals with schizophrenia will also be investigated and compared with a healthy matched control group. Methods: We propose a clinical, nonrandomized, pre-post pilot study comparing the impact of CR on RL and neurocognitive outcomes. The study will use a combination of objective and subjective measures to assess neurocognitive, psychiatric symptoms, and neurophysiological domains. A total of 40 individuals with schizophrenia spectrum disorders (aged 18-35 years) will receive 12 weeks of CR therapy (n=20) or treatment as usual (n=20). Reward processing will be evaluated using a reinforcement learning task with 2 conditions (social reward vs nonsocial reward) at baseline and the 12-week follow-up. Functional magnetic resonance imaging responses will be measured during this task. To validate the reinforcement learning task, RL will also be assessed in 20 healthy controls, matched for age, sex, and premorbid functioning. Mixed-factorial ANOVAs will be conducted to evaluate treatment group differences. For the functional magnetic resonance imaging analysis, computational modeling will allow the estimation of learning parameters at each point in time, during each task condition, for each participant. We will use a variational Bayesian framework to measure how learning occurred during the experimental task and the subprocesses that underlie this learning. Second-level group analyses will examine how learning in patients differs from that observed in control participants and how CR alters learning efficiency and the underlying neural activity. Results: As of September 2023, this study has enrolled 15 participants in the CR group, 1 participant in the treatment-as-usual group, and 11 participants in the healthy control group. Recruitment is expected to be completed by September 2024. Data analysis is expected to be completed and published in early 2025. Conclusions: The results of this study will contribute to the knowledge of CR and RL processes in severe mental illness and the understanding of the systems that impact negative symptoms and cognitive impairments within this population.

Original languageEnglish
Article numbere52505
JournalJMIR research protocols
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - 22 Jan 2024


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