Open Access Research article

Identifying persistent negative symptoms in first episode psychosis

Cindy L Hovington12, Michael Bodnar12, Ridha Joober13, Ashok K Malla123 and Martin Lepage1234*

Author Affiliations

1 Prevention and Early Intervention Program for Psychoses (PEPP-Montreal), Douglas Mental Health University Institute, Montreal, Quebec, Canada

2 Department of Neurology & Neurosurgery, Montreal Neurological Institute, McGill University, Montreal, Quebec, Canada

3 Department of Psychiatry, McGill University, Montreal, Quebec, Canada

4 Douglas Mental Health University Institute, Frank B Common Pavilion, F1143, 6875 LaSalle Blvd, Verdun, Quebec, H4H 1R3, Canada

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BMC Psychiatry 2012, 12:224  doi:10.1186/1471-244X-12-224

Published: 6 December 2012



Although persistent negative symptoms (PNS) are known to contribute significantly to poor functional outcome, they remain poorly understood. We examined the heuristic value of various PNS definitions and their respective prevalence in patients with first episode psychosis (FEP). We also contrasted those definitions to the Proxy for the Deficit Syndrome (PDS) to identify deficit syndrome (DS) in the same FEP cohort.


One hundred and fifty-eight FEP patients were separated into PNS and non-PNS groups based on ratings from the Scale for Assessment of Negative Symptoms (SANS). PNS was defined in the following ways: 1) having a score of 3 or greater on at least 1 global subscale of the SANS (PNS_1); 2) having a score of 3 or more on at least 2 global subscales of the SANS (PNS_2); and 3) having a score of 3 or more on a combination of specific SANS subscales and items (PNS_H). For all three definitions, symptoms had to be present for a minimum of six consecutive months. Negative symptoms were measured upon entry to the program and subsequently at 1,2,3,6,9 and 12 months. Functional outcome was quantified at first assessment and month 12.


PNS prevalence: PNS_1 (27%); PNS_2 (13.2%); PNS_H (13.2%). The prevalence of DS was found to be 3% when applying the PDS. Regardless of the definition being applied, when compared to non-PNS, patients in the PNS group were shown to have significantly worse functioning at month 12. All three PNS definitions showed similar associations with functional outcome at month 12.


Persistent negative symptoms are present in about 27% of FEP patients with both affective and non-affective psychosis. Although there has previously been doubt as to whether PNS represents a separate subdomain of negative symptoms, the current study suggests that PNS may be more applicable to FEP when compared to DS. Although all three PNS definitions were comparable in predicting functional outcome, we suggest that the PNS definition employed is dependent on the clinical or research objective at hand.

First-episode psychosis; Persistent negative symptoms; Negative symptoms; Functional outcome