Impairment of working memory (WM) performance in schizophrenia patients (SZ) is well-established. Compared to healthy controls (HC), SZ patients show aberrant blood oxygen level dependent (BOLD) activations and disrupted functional connectivity during WM performance. In this study, we examined the small-world network metrics computed from functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) data collected as 35 HC and 35 SZ performed a Sternberg Item Recognition Paradigm (SIRP) at three WM load levels. Functional connectivity networks were built by calculating the partial correlation on preprocessed time courses of BOLD signal between task-related brain regions of interest (ROIs) defined by group independent component analysis (ICA). The networks were then thresholded within the small-world regime, resulting in undirected binarized small-world networks at different working memory loads. Our results showed: 1) at the medium WM load level, the networks in SZ showed a lower clustering coefficient and less local efficiency compared with HC; 2) in SZ, most network measures altered significantly as the WM load level increased from low to medium and from medium to high, while the network metrics were relatively stable in HC at different WM loads; and 3) the altered structure at medium WM load in SZ was related to their performance during the task, with longer reaction time related to lower clustering coefficient and lower local efficiency. These findings suggest brain connectivity in patients with SZ was more diffuse and less strongly linked locally in functional network at intermediate level of WM when compared to HC. SZ show distinctly inefficient and variable network structures in response to WM load increase, comparing to stable highly clustered network topologies in HC.
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