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1.  Brain function and gaze-fixation during facial emotion processing in fragile-X and autism 
This research focuses on the relationship between fragile X syndrome (FXS) and autism spectrum disorders (ASD). Both of these populations have a tendency to avoid looking others in the eye, along with difficulties in communication with others and tend to be socially withdrawn. While it is clear that FXS and ASD share some common abnormal behaviors, the underlying brain mechanisms associated with the social and emotional deficits in these groups remain unclear. We showed pictures of emotional and non-emotional human faces to these groups while in a magnetic resonance scanner (MRI). We collected images of brain function along with measures of where on the faces the individuals were looking (e.g. eyes or mouth). The FXS group showed a similar yet less abnormal pattern of where they were looking on the face compared to the ASD group. The FXS group also showed a similar pattern of decreased brain function in the area of the brain typically used when looking at faces, the fusiform gyrus (FG). The amount of activation in the FG was associated with how much time the FXS and ASD individuals looked at the eyes, the more they looked at the eyes, the greater the FG activation. The FXS group also displayed more brain activation than both the ASD group and a group of typically developing control subjects in brain areas that might suggest increased task difficulty for the FXS group. These group differences in brain activation are important as they suggest there is some overlap in areas of brain function in FXS and ASD when looking at faces, but that these two groups also have unique activation in other brain areas. These findings largely support the idea that ASD characteristics in FXS are associated with partially different patterns of brain activation when looking at human faces compared to individuals with ASD.
Fragile X syndrome (FXS) is the most commonly known genetic disorder associated with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). Overlapping features in these populations include gaze aversion, communication deficits, and social withdrawal. Although the association between FXS and ASD has been well documented at the behavioral level, the underlying neural mechanisms associated with the social/emotional deficits in these groups remain unclear.
We collected functional brain images and eye-gaze fixations from 9 individuals with FXS and 14 individuals with idiopathic ASD, as well as 15 typically developing (TD) individuals, while they performed a facial-emotion discrimination task.
The FXS group showed a similar yet less aberrant pattern of gaze-fixations compared to the ASD group. The FXS group also showed fusiform gyrus (FG) hypoactivation compared to the TD control group. Activation in FG was strongly and positively associated with average eye fixation and negatively associated with ASD characteristics in the FXS group. The FXS group displayed significantly greater activation than both the TD control and ASD groups in the left hippocampus (HIPP), left superior temporal gyrus (STG), right insula (INS), and left post-central gyrus (PCG).
These group differences in brain activation are important as they suggest unique underlying face-processing neural circuitry in FXS versus idiopathic ASD, largely supporting the hypothesis that ASD characteristics in FXS and idiopathic ASD reflect partially divergent impairments at the neural level, at least in FXS individuals without a co-morbid diagnosis of ASD.
PMCID: PMC2679695  PMID: 19360673
fragile X syndrome; autism; face processing; brain function; fMRI
2.  A quantitative link between face discrimination deficits and neuronal selectivity for faces in autism☆ 
NeuroImage : Clinical  2013;2:320-331.
Individuals with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) appear to show a general face discrimination deficit across a range of tasks including social–emotional judgments as well as identification and discrimination. However, functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) studies probing the neural bases of these behavioral differences have produced conflicting results: while some studies have reported reduced or no activity to faces in ASD in the Fusiform Face Area (FFA), a key region in human face processing, others have suggested more typical activation levels, possibly reflecting limitations of conventional fMRI techniques to characterize neuron-level processing. Here, we test the hypotheses that face discrimination abilities are highly heterogeneous in ASD and are mediated by FFA neurons, with differences in face discrimination abilities being quantitatively linked to variations in the estimated selectivity of face neurons in the FFA. Behavioral results revealed a wide distribution of face discrimination performance in ASD, ranging from typical performance to chance level performance. Despite this heterogeneity in perceptual abilities, individual face discrimination performance was well predicted by neural selectivity to faces in the FFA, estimated via both a novel analysis of local voxel-wise correlations, and the more commonly used fMRI rapid adaptation technique. Thus, face processing in ASD appears to rely on the FFA as in typical individuals, differing quantitatively but not qualitatively. These results for the first time mechanistically link variations in the ASD phenotype to specific differences in the typical face processing circuit, identifying promising targets for interventions.
► fMRI-RA, local correlations are used to estimate neuronal tuning in the FFA in ASD. ► Both techniques reveal a link of neuronal selectivity and face discrimination ability. ► These results suggest weaker experience-driven learning in the FFA in ASD.
PMCID: PMC3777682  PMID: 24179786
Face; Autism; ASD; fMRI; fMRI-RA; Local correlation
3.  Abnormal Activation of the Social Brain Network in Children with Autism Spectrum Disorder: An fMRI Study 
Psychiatry Investigation  2014;12(1):37-45.
The aim of this study is to investigate abnormal findings of social brain network in Korean children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) compared with typically developing children (TDC).
Functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) was performed to examine brain activations during the processing of emotional faces (happy, fearful, and neutral) in 17 children with ASD, 24 TDC.
When emotional face stimuli were given to children with ASD, various areas of the social brain relevant to social cognition showed reduced activation. Specifically, ASD children exhibited less activation in the right amygdala (AMY), right superior temporal sulcus (STS) and right inferior frontal gyrus (IFG) than TDC group when fearful faces were shown. Activation of left insular cortex and right IFG in response to happy faces was less in the ASD group. Similar findings were also found in left superior insular gyrus and right insula in case of neutral stimulation.
These findings suggest that children with ASD have different processing of social and emotional experience at the neural level. In other words, the deficit of social cognition in ASD could be explained by the deterioration of the capacity for visual analysis of emotional faces, the subsequent inner imitation through mirror neuron system (MNS), and the ability to transmit it to the limbic system and to process the transmitted emotion.
PMCID: PMC4310919  PMID: 25670944
Autism spectrum disorder; Social brain network; Social cognition; fMRI
4.  Neural Correlates of Own Name and Own Face Detection in Autism Spectrum Disorder 
PLoS ONE  2014;9(1):e86020.
Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is a heterogeneous neurodevelopmental condition clinically characterized by social interaction and communication difficulties. To date, the majority of research efforts have focused on brain mechanisms underlying the deficits in interpersonal social cognition associated with ASD. Recent empirical and theoretical work has begun to reveal evidence for a reduced or even absent self-preference effect in patients with ASD. One may hypothesize that this is related to the impaired attentional processing of self-referential stimuli. The aim of our study was to test this hypothesis. We investigated the neural correlates of face and name detection in ASD. Four categories of face/name stimuli were used: own, close-other, famous, and unknown. Event-related potentials were recorded from 62 electrodes in 23 subjects with ASD and 23 matched control subjects. P100, N170, and P300 components were analyzed. The control group clearly showed a significant self-preference effect: higher P300 amplitude to the presentation of own face and own name than to the close-other, famous, and unknown categories, indicating preferential attentional engagement in processing of self-related information. In contrast, detection of both own and close-other's face and name in the ASD group was associated with enhanced P300, suggesting similar attention allocation for self and close-other related information. These findings suggest that attention allocation in the ASD group is modulated by the personal significance factor, and that the self-preference effect is absent if self is compared to close-other. These effects are similar for physical and non-physical aspects of the autistic self. In addition, lateralization of face and name processing is attenuated in ASD, suggesting atypical brain organization.
PMCID: PMC3899112  PMID: 24465847
5.  Neural bases of gaze and emotion processing in children with autism spectrum disorders 
Brain and Behavior  2011;1(1):1-11.
Abnormal eye contact is a core symptom of autism spectrum disorders (ASD), though little is understood of the neural bases of gaze processing in ASD. Competing hypotheses suggest that individuals with ASD avoid eye contact due to the anxiety-provoking nature of direct eye gaze or that eye-gaze cues hold less interest or significance to children with ASD. The current study examined the effects of gaze direction on neural processing of emotional faces in typically developing (TD) children and those with ASD. While undergoing functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), 16 high-functioning children and adolescents with ASD and 16 TD controls viewed a series of faces depicting emotional expressions with either direct or averted gaze. Children in both groups showed significant activity in visual-processing regions for both direct and averted gaze trials. However, there was a significant group by gaze interaction such that only TD children showed reliably greater activity in ventrolateral prefrontal cortex for direct versus averted gaze. The ASD group showed no difference between direct and averted gaze in response to faces conveying negative emotions. These results highlight the key role of eye gaze in signaling communicative intent and suggest altered processing of the emotional significance of direct gaze in children with ASD.
PMCID: PMC3217668  PMID: 22398976
Autism; facial expression; functional magnetic resonance imaging; gaze; developmental neuroimaging
6.  Amygdala Habituation and Prefrontal Functional Connectivity in Youth With Autism Spectrum Disorders 
Amygdala habituation, the rapid decrease in amygdala responsiveness to repeated presentation of stimuli, is fundamental to the nervous system. Habituation is important for maintaining adaptive levels of arousal to predictable social stimuli and reduced habituation is associated with heightened anxiety. Input from the ventromedial prefrontal cortex (vmPFC) regulates amygdala activity. Although previous research demonstrated abnormal amygdala function in youth with autism spectrum disorders (ASD), no study had examined amygdala habituation in a young sample or whether habituation related to amygdala connectivity with the vmPFC.
Data were analyzed from 32 children and adolescents with ASD and 56 typically developing controls who underwent functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scanning while performing a gender identification task for faces that were fearful, happy, sad, or neutral. Habituation was tested by comparing amygdala activation to faces during the first half versus the second half of the session. VmPFC–amygdala connectivity was examined through psychophysiological interaction analysis.
Youth with ASD had decreased amygdala habituation to sad and neutral faces relative to controls. Moreover, reduced amygdala habituation correlated with autism severity as measured by the Social Responsiveness Scale. There was a group difference in vmPFC–amygdala connectivity while viewing sad faces, and connectivity predicted amygdala habituation to sad faces within controls.
Sustained amygdala activation to faces suggests that repeated faces are processed differently in individuals with ASD, which could contribute to social impairments. Abnormal modulation of the amygdala by the vmPFC may play a role in reduced habituation.
PMCID: PMC3530144  PMID: 23265636
fMRI; habituation; autism; adolescent; emotion
7.  Autism spectrum traits predict the neural response to eye gaze in typical individuals 
Neuroimage  2012;59(4-4):3356-3363.
Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD) are neurodevelopmental disorders characterised by impaired social interaction and communication, restricted interests and repetitive behaviours. The severity of these characteristics are posited to lie on a continuum extending into the typical population, and typical adults' performance on behavioural tasks that are impaired in ASD is correlated with the extent to which they display autistic traits (as measured by Autism Spectrum Quotient, AQ). Individuals with ASD also show structural and functional differences in brain regions involved in social perception. Here we show that variation in AQ in typically developing individuals is associated with altered brain activity in the neural circuit for social attention perception while viewing others' eye gaze. In an fMRI experiment, participants viewed faces looking at variable or constant directions. In control conditions, only the eye region was presented or the heads were shown with eyes closed but oriented at variable or constant directions. The response to faces with variable vs. constant eye gaze direction was associated with AQ scores in a number of regions (posterior superior temporal sulcus, intraparietal sulcus, temporoparietal junction, amygdala, and MT/V5) of the brain network for social attention perception. No such effect was observed for heads with eyes closed or when only the eyes were presented. The results demonstrate a relationship between neurophysiology and autism spectrum traits in the typical (non-ASD) population and suggest that changes in the functioning of the neural circuit for social attention perception is associated with an extended autism spectrum in the typical population.
► Autistic spectrum might extend to typically developing (TD) individuals. ► We studied TD individuals with varying Autism Spectrum Quotient (AQ). ► AQ correlated with BOLD response to viewing variable vs. constant eye gaze. ► AQ did not correlate with response to directional control stimuli. ► Neurophysiology and autism spectrum traits are associated in non-AS individuals.
PMCID: PMC3315678  PMID: 22062191
Eye gaze; fMRI; Autism spectrum; Attention; Face perception
8.  The brains of high functioning autistic individuals do not synchronize with those of others☆ 
NeuroImage : Clinical  2013;3:489-497.
Multifaceted and idiosyncratic aberrancies in social cognition characterize autism spectrum disorders (ASDs). To advance understanding of underlying neural mechanisms, we measured brain hemodynamic activity with functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) in individuals with ASD and matched-pair neurotypical (NT) controls while they were viewing a feature film portraying social interactions. Pearson's correlation coefficient was used as a measure of voxelwise similarity of brain activity (InterSubject Correlations—ISCs). Individuals with ASD showed lower ISC than NT controls in brain regions implicated in processing social information including the insula, posterior and anterior cingulate cortex, caudate nucleus, precuneus, lateral occipital cortex, and supramarginal gyrus. Curiously, also within NT group, autism-quotient scores predicted ISC in overlapping areas, including, e.g., supramarginal gyrus and precuneus. In ASD participants, functional connectivity was decreased between the frontal pole and the superior frontal gyrus, angular gyrus, superior parietal lobule, precentral gyrus, precuneus, and anterior/posterior cingulate gyrus. Taken together these results suggest that ISC and functional connectivity measure distinct features of atypical brain function in high-functioning autistic individuals during free viewing of acted social interactions. Our ISC results suggest that the minds of ASD individuals do not ‘tick together’ with others while perceiving identical dynamic social interactions.
•We studied brain function in autism during free viewing of social interactions.•The brains of individuals with autism do not ‘tick together’ with others.•Long-range functional connectivity is altered in individuals with autism.•Link between autistic traits and social brain synchrony extends to normal population.
PMCID: PMC3830058  PMID: 24273731
Asperger syndrome; fMRI; Intersubject correlation; Movie; Social brain
9.  Same but different: Nine-month-old infants at average and high risk for autism look at the same facial features but process them using different brain mechanisms 
Lay Abstract
Reduced attention to the eyes and/or increased focus on the mouth have been described as features of atypical face processing in individuals with autism spectrum disorders (ASD). In this study, we examined whether 9-month-old infants at average vs. high risk for ASD differ in their detection of changes in individual facial features (eyes vs. mouth) and whether this ability is related to infants’ social and communicative skills. Eye tracking data and electrical brain activity were recorded while infants viewed repeated presentations of a smiling unfamiliar female face. Occasionally, the eyes or the mouth of that face were replaced with corresponding parts from a different face. There were no group differences in the number or duration of fixations on the eye or mouth regions for any of the face stimuli. Brain activity data revealed that all infants detected both eye and mouth changes, and that these changes were associated with changes in activity of the face-specific perception mechanisms for average-risk infants only. For all infants, the size and speed of brain responses correlated with parental reports of communication use and understanding, suggesting that differences in brain processing of faces and their features in infants are associated with individual differences in early communication skills.
Scientific Abstract
The study examined whether 9-month-old infants at average vs. high risk for autism spectrum disorder (ASD) process facial features (eyes, mouth) differently, and whether such differences are related to infants’ social and communicative skills. Eye tracking and visual event-related potentials (ERPs) were recorded in 35 infants (20 average-risk typical infants, 15 high-risk siblings of children with ASD) while they viewed photographs of a smiling unfamiliar female face. On 30% of the trials, the eyes or the mouth of that face were replaced with corresponding features from a different female. There were no group differences in the number, duration, or distribution of fixations, and all infants looked at the eyes and mouth regions equally. However, increased attention to the mouth was associated with weaker receptive communication skills and increased attention to the eyes correlated with better interpersonal skills. ERP results revealed that all infants detected eye and mouth changes but did so using different brain mechanisms. Changes in facial features were associated with changes in activity of the face perception mechanisms (N290) for the average-risk group, but not for the high-risk infants. For all infants, correlations between ERP and eye tracking measures indicated that larger and faster ERPs to feature changes were associated with fewer fixations on the irrelevant regions of stimuli. The size and latency of the ERP responses also correlated with parental reports of receptive and expressive communication skills, suggesting that differences in brain processing of human faces are associated with individual differences in social-communicative behaviors.
PMCID: PMC3422441  PMID: 22674669
Face processing; ERP; eye tracking; infants; ASD; Vineland
10.  Response of neural reward regions to food cues in autism spectrum disorders 
One hypothesis for the social deficits that characterize autism spectrum disorders (ASD) is diminished neural reward response to social interaction and attachment. Prior research using established monetary reward paradigms as a test of non-social reward to compare with social reward may involve confounds in the ability of individuals with ASD to utilize symbolic representation of money and the abstraction required to interpret monetary gains. Thus, a useful addition to our understanding of neural reward circuitry in ASD includes a characterization of the neural response to primary rewards.
We asked 17 children with ASD and 18 children without ASD to abstain from eating for at least four hours before an MRI scan in which they viewed images of high-calorie foods. We assessed the neural reward network for increases in the blood oxygenation level dependent (BOLD) signal in response to the food images
We found very similar patterns of increased BOLD signal to these images in the two groups; both groups showed increased BOLD signal in the bilateral amygdala, as well as in the nucleus accumbens, orbitofrontal cortex, and insula. Direct group comparisons revealed that the ASD group showed a stronger response to food cues in bilateral insula along the anterior-posterior gradient and in the anterior cingulate cortex than the control group, whereas there were no neural reward regions that showed higher activation for controls than for ASD.
These results suggest that neural response to primary rewards is not diminished but in fact shows an aberrant enhancement in children with ASD.
PMCID: PMC3436657  PMID: 22958533
11.  Mentalizing and motivation neural function during social interactions in autism spectrum disorders☆ 
NeuroImage : Clinical  2013;3:321-331.
Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASDs) are characterized by core deficits in social functions. Two theories have been suggested to explain these deficits: mind-blindness theory posits impaired mentalizing processes (i.e. decreased ability for establishing a representation of others' state of mind), while social motivation theory proposes that diminished reward value for social information leads to reduced social attention, social interactions, and social learning. Mentalizing and motivation are integral to typical social interactions, and neuroimaging evidence points to independent brain networks that support these processes in healthy individuals. However, the simultaneous function of these networks has not been explored in individuals with ASDs. We used a social, interactive fMRI task, the Domino game, to explore mentalizing- and motivation-related brain activation during a well-defined interval where participants respond to rewards or punishments (i.e. motivation) and concurrently process information about their opponent's potential next actions (i.e. mentalizing). Thirteen individuals with high-functioning ASDs, ages 12–24, and 14 healthy controls played fMRI Domino games against a computer-opponent and separately, what they were led to believe was a human-opponent. Results showed that while individuals with ASDs understood the game rules and played similarly to controls, they showed diminished neural activity during the human-opponent runs only (i.e. in a social context) in bilateral middle temporal gyrus (MTG) during mentalizing and right Nucleus Accumbens (NAcc) during reward-related motivation (Pcluster < 0.05 FWE). Importantly, deficits were not observed in these areas when playing against a computer-opponent or in areas related to motor and visual processes. These results demonstrate that while MTG and NAcc, which are critical structures in the mentalizing and motivation networks, respectively, activate normally in a non-social context, they fail to respond in an otherwise identical social context in ASD compared to controls. We discuss implications to both the mind-blindness and social motivation theories of ASD and the importance of social context in research and treatment protocols.
•We used an fMRI Domino game to map social networks in high-functioning ASDs.•ASDs did not show MTG increased activation during mentalizing in social context.•ASDs did not show NAcc increased activation for processing reward in social context.•Activation deficits were specific to brain areas involved in social processes.•Results support both the mind-blindness and the social motivation theories of ASDs.
PMCID: PMC3815022  PMID: 24273716
Theory of mind; Reward; Nucleus accumbens; Middle temporal gyrus
12.  Frontal contributions to face processing differences in autism: Evidence from fMRI of inverted face processing 
Functional neuroimaging studies of face processing deficits in autism have typically focused on visual processing regions, such as the fusiform face area (FFA), which have shown reduced activity in autism spectrum disorders (ASD), though inconsistently. We recently reported reduced activity in the inferior frontal region in ASD, implicating impaired mirror-neuron systems during face processing. In the present study, we used fMRI during a face processing task in which subjects had to match faces presented in the upright versus inverted position. Typically developing (TD) children showed a classic behavioral inversion effect, increased reaction time for inverted faces, while this effect was significantly reduced in ASD subjects. The fMRI data showed similar responses in the fusiform face area for ASD and TD children, with both groups demonstrating increased activation for inverted faces. However, the groups did differ in several brain regions implicated in social cognition, particularly prefrontal cortex and amygdala. These data suggest that the behavioral differences in processing upright versus inverted faces for TD children are related not to visual information processing but to the social significance of the stimuli. Our results are consistent with other recent studies implicating frontal and limbic dysfunction during face processing in autism.
PMCID: PMC3047502  PMID: 18954473
Functional MRI; Autism; Asperger’s; Face processing; Face inversion; Development
13.  Age-dependent changes in the neural substrates of empathy in autism spectrum disorder 
In typical development, empathic abilities continue to refine during adolescence and early adulthood. Children and adolescents with autism spectrum disorders (ASD) show deficits in empathy, whereas adults with ASD may have developed compensatory strategies. We aimed at comparing developmental trajectories in the neural mechanisms underlying empathy in individuals with ASD and typically developing control (TDC) subjects. Using an explicit empathizing paradigm and functional magnetic resonance imaging, 27 participants with ASD and 27 TDC aged 12–31 years were investigated. Participants were asked to empathize with emotional faces and to either infer the face’s emotional state (other-task) or to judge their own emotional response (self-task). Differential age-dependent changes were evident during the self-task in the right dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, right medial prefrontal cortex, right inferior parietal cortex, right anterior insula and occipital cortex. Age-dependent decreases in neural activation in TDC were paralleled by either increasing or unchanged age-dependent activation in ASD. These data suggest ASD-associated deviations in the developmental trajectories of self-related processing during empathizing. In TDC, age-dependent modulations of brain areas may reflect the ‘fine-tuning’ of cortical networks by reduction of task-unspecific brain activity. Increased age-related activation in individuals with ASD may indicate the development of compensatory mechanisms.
PMCID: PMC4127013  PMID: 23784073
social cognition; theory of mind; medial prefrontal cortex; facial emotion; developmental trajectories
14.  Emotional language processing in autism spectrum disorders: a systematic review 
In his first description of Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD), Kanner emphasized emotional impairments by characterizing children with ASD as indifferent to other people, self-absorbed, emotionally cold, distanced, and retracted. Thereafter, emotional impairments became regarded as part of the social impairments of ASD, and research mostly focused on understanding how individuals with ASD recognize visual expressions of emotions from faces and body postures. However, it still remains unclear how emotions are processed outside of the visual domain. This systematic review aims to fill this gap by focusing on impairments of emotional language processing in ASD. We systematically searched PubMed for papers published between 1990 and 2013 using standardized search terms. Studies show that people with ASD are able to correctly classify emotional language stimuli as emotionally positive or negative. However, processing of emotional language stimuli in ASD is associated with atypical patterns of attention and memory performance, as well as abnormal physiological and neural activity. Particularly, younger children with ASD have difficulties in acquiring and developing emotional concepts, and avoid using these in discourse. These emotional language impairments were not consistently associated with age, IQ, or level of development of language skills. We discuss how emotional language impairments fit with existing cognitive theories of ASD, such as central coherence, executive dysfunction, and weak Theory of Mind. We conclude that emotional impairments in ASD may be broader than just a mere consequence of social impairments, and should receive more attention in future research.
PMCID: PMC4285104  PMID: 25610383
autism spectrum disorders; asperger syndrome; social; emotion; affect; language
15.  ERP responses differentiate inverted but not upright face processing in adults with ASD 
Individuals with autism spectrum disorders (ASD) have documented deficits in face processing, face memory and abnormal activation of the neural circuitry that supports these functions. To examine speed of processing of faces in ASD, high density event-related brain potentials were recorded to images of faces, inverted faces and non-face objects from 32 high-functioning adults with ASD and controls. Participants were instructed to focus on a cross hair prior to stimulus onset; the cross-hair location directed the participant's eye gaze to the eye region at stimulus onset. Although the ASD group preformed more poorly on behavioral tests of face and object memory, both groups demonstrated similar ERP responses, characterized by greater (positive) P1 and (negative) N170 amplitude to faces vs houses. N170 speed of processing to faces did not differ between groups. However, only the control group demonstrated differential responses to upright vs inverted faces. For the ASD group, the differential response to inverted vs upright faces was associated with better performance on face memory and self-reported social skills. It is possible that the use of attention cues may facilitate face processing in high-functioning adults with ASD, suggesting that the underlying neural circuitry can be activated in adults with ASD under specific demands.
PMCID: PMC3375882  PMID: 19454620
event-related potential; P100; N170; autism; face processing
16.  Functional Brain Networks and White Matter Underlying Theory-of-Mind in Autism 
Human beings constantly engage in attributing causal explanations to one’s own and to others’ actions, and theory-of-mind (ToM) is critical in making such inferences. Although children learn causal attribution early in development, children with autism spectrum disorders (ASDs) are known to have impairments in the development of intentional causality. This functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) and diffusion tensor imaging (DTI) study investigated the neural correlates of physical and intentional causal attribution in people with ASDs. In the fMRI scanner, 15 adolescents and adults with ASDs and 15 age- and IQ-matched typically developing peers made causal judgments about comic strips presented randomly in an event-related design. All participants showed robust activation in bilateral posterior superior temporal sulcus at the temporo-parietal junction (TPJ) in response to intentional causality. Participants with ASDs showed lower activation in TPJ, right inferior frontal gyrus and left premotor cortex. Significantly weaker functional connectivity was also found in the ASD group between TPJ and motor areas during intentional causality. DTI data revealed significantly reduced fractional anisotropy in ASD participants in white matter underlying the temporal lobe. In addition to underscoring the role of TPJ in ToM, this study found an interaction between motor simulation and mentalizing systems in intentional causal attribution and its possible discord in autism.
PMCID: PMC3871731  PMID: 22977198
functional MRI; theory-of-mind; intentional causality; physical causality; causal attribution; diffusion tensor imaging; fractional anisotropy; functional connectivity; autism
17.  Neural mechanisms of negative reinforcement in children and adolescents with autism spectrum disorders 
Previous research has found accumulating evidence for atypical reward processing in autism spectrum disorders (ASD), particularly in the context of social rewards. Yet, this line of research has focused largely on positive social reinforcement, while little is known about the processing of negative reinforcement in individuals with ASD.
The present study examined neural responses to social negative reinforcement (a face displaying negative affect) and non-social negative reinforcement (monetary loss) in children with ASD relative to typically developing children, using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI).
We found that children with ASD demonstrated hypoactivation of the right caudate nucleus while anticipating non-social negative reinforcement and hypoactivation of a network of frontostriatal regions (including the nucleus accumbens, caudate nucleus, and putamen) while anticipating social negative reinforcement. In addition, activation of the right caudate nucleus during non-social negative reinforcement was associated with individual differences in social motivation.
These results suggest that atypical responding to negative reinforcement in children with ASD may contribute to social motivational deficits in this population.
PMCID: PMC4379694  PMID: 25829969
Autism spectrum disorders (ASD); Negative reinforcement; Reward processing; Social motivation; Reward loss; Reward motivation
18.  Neural basis of irony comprehension in children with autism: the role of prosody and context 
Brain : a journal of neurology  2006;129(0 4):932-943.
While individuals with autism spectrum disorders (ASD) are typically impaired in interpreting the communicative intent of others, little is known about the neural bases of higher-level pragmatic impairments. Here, we used functional MRI (fMRI) to examine the neural circuitry underlying deficits in understanding irony in high-functioning children with ASD. Participants listened to short scenarios and decided whether the speaker was sincere or ironic. Three types of scenarios were used in which we varied the information available to guide this decision. Scenarios included (i) both knowledge of the event outcome and strong prosodic cues (sincere or sarcastic intonation), (ii) prosodic cues only or (iii) knowledge of the event outcome only. Although children with ASD performed well above chance, they were less accurate than typically developing (TD) children at interpreting the communicative intent behind a potentially ironic remark, particularly with regard to taking advantage of available contextual information. In contrast to prior research showing hypoactivation of regions involved in understanding the mental states of others, children with ASD showed significantly greater activity than TD children in the right inferior frontal gyrus (IFG) as well as in bilateral temporal regions. Increased activity in the ASD group fell within the network recruited in the TD group and may reflect more effortful processing needed to interpret the intended meaning of an utterance. These results confirm that children with ASD have difficulty interpreting the communicative intent of others and suggest that these individuals can recruit regions activated as part of the normative neural circuitry when task demands require explicit attention to socially relevant cues.
PMCID: PMC3713234  PMID: 16481375
autism; brain development; fMRI; language pragmatics; social cognition
19.  Neural responses to emotional expression information in high- and low-spatial frequency in autism: evidence for a cortical dysfunction 
Despite an overall consensus that Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) entails atypical processing of human faces and emotional expressions, the role of neural structures involved in early facial processing remains unresolved. An influential model for the neurotypical brain suggests that face processing in the fusiform gyrus and the amygdala is based on both high-spatial frequency (HSF) information carried by a parvocellular pathway, and low-spatial frequency (LSF) information separately conveyed by a magnocellular pathway. Here, we tested the fusiform gyrus and amygdala sensitivity to emotional face information conveyed by these distinct pathways in ASD individuals (and matched Controls). During functional Magnetical Resonance Imaging (fMRI), participants reported the apparent gender of hybrid face stimuli, made by merging two different faces (one in LSF and the other in HSF), out of which one displayed an emotional expression (fearful or happy) and the other was neutral. Controls exhibited increased fusiform activity to hybrid faces with an emotional expression (relative to hybrids composed only with neutral faces), regardless of whether this was conveyed by LSFs or HSFs in hybrid stimuli. ASD individuals showed intact fusiform response to LSF, but not HSF, expressions. Furthermore, the amygdala (and the ventral occipital cortex) was more sensitive to HSF than LSF expressions in Controls, but exhibited an opposite preference in ASD. Our data suggest spared LSF face processing in ASD, while cortical analysis of HSF expression cues appears affected. These findings converge with recent accounts suggesting that ASD might be characterized by a difficulty in integrating multiple local information and cause global processing troubles unexplained by losses in low spatial frequency inputs.
PMCID: PMC3988374  PMID: 24782735
autism; facial expression; emotion expression; spatial frequency; fMRI
20.  The self in autism: An emerging view from neuroimaging 
Neurocase  2011;17(3):201-208.
One of the defining characteristics of individuals with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is difficulty with social interaction and communication with others, or interpersonal interaction. Accordingly, the majority of research efforts to date have focused on understanding the brain mechanisms underlying the deficits in social cognition and language associated with ASD. However, recent empirical and theoretical work has begun to reveal increasing evidence for altered self-representation, or intrapersonal cognition in ASD. Here we review recent studies of the self in ASD, focusing on paradigms examining ‘physical’ aspects of the self, including self-recognition, agency and perspective taking, and ‘psychological’ aspects of the self, including self-knowledge and autobiographical memory. A review of the existing literature suggests that psychological, but not physical, aspects of self-representation are altered in ASD. One key brain region that has emerged as a potential locus of self-related deficits in ASD is the medial prefrontal cortex, part of a larger ‘default mode network’. Collectively, the findings from these studies provide a more comprehensive framework for understanding the complex social, cognitive, and affective symptomatology of ASD.
PMCID: PMC3117464  PMID: 21207316
Autism spectrum disorders; Agency; Perspective taking; Social cognition; Self-recognition; Self-knowledge; Brain development; Autobiographical memory; Personality traits; Default mode network
21.  Neural bases of Theory of Mind in children with autism spectrum disorders and children with conduct problems and callous-unemotional traits 
Developmental Science  2014;17(5):786-796.
Individuals with autism spectrum disorders (ASD) have difficulty understanding other minds (Theory of Mind; ToM), with atypical processing evident at both behavioural and neural levels. Individuals with conduct problems and high levels of callous-unemotional (CU) traits (CP/HCU) exhibit reduced responsiveness to others' emotions and difficulties interacting with others, but nonetheless perform normally in experimental tests of ToM. The present study aimed to examine the neural underpinnings of ToM in children (aged 10–16) with ASD (N = 16), CP/HCU (N = 16) and typically developing (TD) controls (N = 16) using a non-verbal cartoon vignette task. Whilst individuals with ASD were predicted to show reduced fMRI responses across regions involved in ToM processing, CP/HCU individuals were predicted to show no differences compared with TD controls. The analyses indicated that neural responses did not differ between TD and CP/HCU groups during ToM. TD and CP/HCU children exhibited significantly greater medial prefrontal cortex responses during ToM than did the ASD group. Within the ASD group, responses in medial prefrontal cortex and right temporoparietal junction (TPJ) correlated with symptom severity as measured by the Autism Diagnostic Observation Schedule (ADOS). Findings suggest that although both ASD and CP/HCU are characterized by social difficulties, only children with ASD display atypical neural processing associated with ToM.
PMCID: PMC4316185  PMID: 24636205
22.  Is it me? Self-recognition bias across sensory modalities and its relationship to autistic traits 
Molecular Autism  2015;6:20.
Atypical self-processing is an emerging theme in autism research, suggested by lower self-reference effect in memory, and atypical neural responses to visual self-representations. Most research on physical self-processing in autism uses visual stimuli. However, the self is a multimodal construct, and therefore, it is essential to test self-recognition in other sensory modalities as well. Self-recognition in the auditory modality remains relatively unexplored and has not been tested in relation to autism and related traits. This study investigates self-recognition in auditory and visual domain in the general population and tests if it is associated with autistic traits.
Thirty-nine neurotypical adults participated in a two-part study. In the first session, individual participant’s voice was recorded and face was photographed and morphed respectively with voices and faces from unfamiliar identities. In the second session, participants performed a ‘self-identification’ task, classifying each morph as ‘self’ voice (or face) or an ‘other’ voice (or face). All participants also completed the Autism Spectrum Quotient (AQ). For each sensory modality, slope of the self-recognition curve was used as individual self-recognition metric. These two self-recognition metrics were tested for association between each other, and with autistic traits.
Fifty percent ‘self’ response was reached for a higher percentage of self in the auditory domain compared to the visual domain (t = 3.142; P < 0.01). No significant correlation was noted between self-recognition bias across sensory modalities (τ = −0.165, P = 0.204). Higher recognition bias for self-voice was observed in individuals higher in autistic traits (τAQ = 0.301, P = 0.008). No such correlation was observed between recognition bias for self-face and autistic traits (τAQ = −0.020, P = 0.438).
Our data shows that recognition bias for physical self-representation is not related across sensory modalities. Further, individuals with higher autistic traits were better able to discriminate self from other voices, but this relation was not observed with self-face. A narrow self-other overlap in the auditory domain seen in individuals with high autistic traits could arise due to enhanced perceptual processing of auditory stimuli often observed in individuals with autism.
PMCID: PMC4407378  PMID: 25908952
Self-recognition; Autism; Self-face; Self-voice
23.  Non-Specialist Psychosocial Interventions for Children and Adolescents with Intellectual Disability or Lower-Functioning Autism Spectrum Disorders: A Systematic Review 
PLoS Medicine  2013;10(12):e1001572.
In a systematic review, Brian Reichow and colleagues assess the evidence that non-specialist care providers in community settings can provide effective interventions for children and adolescents with intellectual disabilities or lower-functioning autism spectrum disorders.
Please see later in the article for the Editors' Summary
The development of effective treatments for use by non-specialists is listed among the top research priorities for improving the lives of people with mental illness worldwide. The purpose of this review is to appraise which interventions for children with intellectual disabilities or lower-functioning autism spectrum disorders delivered by non-specialist care providers in community settings produce benefits when compared to either a no-treatment control group or treatment-as-usual comparator.
Methods and Findings
We systematically searched electronic databases through 24 June 2013 to locate prospective controlled studies of psychosocial interventions delivered by non-specialist providers to children with intellectual disabilities or lower-functioning autism spectrum disorders. We screened 234 full papers, of which 34 articles describing 29 studies involving 1,305 participants were included. A majority of the studies included children exclusively with a diagnosis of lower-functioning autism spectrum disorders (15 of 29, 52%). Fifteen of twenty-nine studies (52%) were randomized controlled trials and just under half of all effect sizes (29 of 59, 49%) were greater than 0.50, of which 18 (62%) were statistically significant. For behavior analytic interventions, the best outcomes were shown for development and daily skills; cognitive rehabilitation, training, and support interventions were found to be most effective for improving developmental outcomes, and parent training interventions to be most effective for improving developmental, behavioral, and family outcomes. We also conducted additional subgroup analyses using harvest plots. Limitations include the studies' potential for performance bias and that few were conducted in lower- and middle-income countries.
The findings of this review support the delivery of psychosocial interventions by non-specialist providers to children who have intellectual disabilities or lower-functioning autism spectrum disorders. Given the scarcity of specialists in many low-resource settings, including many lower- and middle-income countries, these findings may provide guidance for scale-up efforts for improving outcomes for children with developmental disorders or lower-functioning autism spectrum disorders.
Protocol Registration
PROSPERO CRD42012002641
Please see later in the article for the Editors' Summary
Editors' Summary
Newborn babies are helpless, but over the first few years of life, they acquire motor (movement) skills, language (communication) skills, cognitive (thinking) skills, and social (interpersonal interaction) skills. Individual aspects of these skills are usually acquired at specific ages, but children with a development disorder such as an autism spectrum disorder (ASD) or intellectual disability (mental retardation) fail to reach these “milestones” because of impaired or delayed brain maturation. Autism, Asperger syndrome, and other ASDs (also called pervasive developmental disorders) affect about 1% of the UK and US populations and are characterized by abnormalities in interactions and communication with other people (reciprocal socio-communicative interactions; for example, some children with autism reject physical affection and fail to develop useful speech) and a restricted, stereotyped, repetitive repertoire of interests (for example, obsessive accumulation of facts about unusual topics). About half of individuals with an ASD also have an intellectual disability—a reduced overall level of intelligence characterized by impairment of the skills that are normally acquired during early life. Such individuals have what is called lower-functioning ASD.
Why Was This Study Done?
Most of the children affected by developmental disorders live in low- and middle-income countries where there are few services available to help them achieve their full potential and where little research has been done to identify the most effective treatments. The development of effective treatments for use by non-specialists (for example, teachers and parents) is necessary to improve the lives of people with mental illnesses worldwide, but particularly in resource-limited settings where psychiatrists, psychologists, and other specialists are scarce. In this systematic review, the researchers investigated which psychosocial interventions for children and adolescents with intellectual disabilities or lower-functioning ASDs delivered by non-specialist providers in community settings produce improvements in development, daily skills, school performance, behavior, or family outcomes when compared to usual care (the control condition). A systematic review identifies all the research on a given topic using predefined criteria; psychosocial interventions are defined as therapy, education, training, or support aimed at improving behavior, overall development, or specific life skills without the use of drugs.
What Did the Researchers Do and Find?
The researchers identified 29 controlled studies (investigations with an intervention group and a control group) that examined the effects of various psychosocial interventions delivered by non-specialist providers to children (under 18 years old) who had a lower-functioning ASD or intellectual disability. The researchers retrieved information on the participants, design and methods, findings, and intervention characteristics for each study, and calculated effect sizes—a measure of the effectiveness of a test intervention relative to a control intervention—for several outcomes for each intervention. Across the studies, three-quarters of the effect size estimates were positive, and nearly half were greater than 0.50; effect sizes of less than 0.2, 0.2–0.5, and greater than 0.5 indicate that an intervention has no, a small, or a medium-to-large effect, respectively. For behavior analytic interventions (which aim to improve socially significant behavior by systematically analyzing behavior), the largest effect sizes were seen for development and daily skills. Cognitive rehabilitation, training, and support (interventions that facilitates the relearning of lost or altered cognitive skills) produced good improvements in developmental outcomes such as standardized IQ tests in children aged 6–11 years old. Finally, parental training interventions (which teach parents how to provide therapy services for their child) had strong effects on developmental, behavioral, and family outcomes.
What Do These Findings Mean?
Because few of the studies included in this systematic review were undertaken in low- and middle-income countries, the review's findings may not be generalizable to children living in resource-limited settings. Moreover, other characteristics of the included studies may limit the accuracy of these findings. Nevertheless, these findings support the delivery of psychosocial interventions by non-specialist providers to children who have intellectual disabilities or a lower-functioning ASD, and indicate which interventions are likely to produce the largest improvements in developmental, behavioral, and family outcomes. Further studies are needed, particularly in low- and middle-income countries, to confirm these findings, but given that specialists are scarce in many resource-limited settings, these findings may help to inform the implementation of programs to improve outcomes for children with intellectual disabilities or lower-functioning ASDs in low- and middle-income countries.
Additional Information
Please access these websites via the online version of this summary at
This study is further discussed in a PLOS Medicine Perspective by Bello-Mojeed and Bakare
The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention provides information (in English and Spanish) on developmental disabilities, including autism spectrum disorders and intellectual disability
The US National Institute of Mental Health also provides detailed information about autism spectrum disorders, including the publication “A Parent's Guide to Autism Spectrum Disorder”
Autism Speaks, a US non-profit organization, provides information about all aspects of autism spectrum disorders and includes information on the Autism Speaks Global Autism Public Health Initiative
The National Autistic Society, a UK charity, provides information about all aspects of autism spectrum disorders and includes personal stories about living with these conditions
The UK National Health Service Choices website has an interactive guide to child development and information about autism and Asperger syndrome, including personal stories, and about learning disabilities
The UK National Institute for Health and Care Excellence provides clinical guidelines for the management and support of children with autism spectrum disorders
The World Health Organization provides information on its Mental Health Gap Action Programme (mhGAP), which includes recommendations on the management of developmental disorders by non-specialist providers; the mhGAP Evidence Resource Center provides evidence reviews for parent skills training for management of children with intellectual disabilities and pervasive developmental disorders and interventions for management of children with intellectual disabilities
PROSPERO, an international prospective register of systematic reviews, provides more information about this systematic review
PMCID: PMC3866092  PMID: 24358029
24.  Constraining Heterogeneity: The Social Brain and its Development in Autism Spectrum Disorder 
The expression of autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is highly heterogeneous, owing to the complex interactions between genes, the brain, and behavior throughout development. Here we present a model of ASD that implicates an early and initial failure to develop the specialized functions of one or more of the set of neuroanatomical structures involved in social information processing (i.e., the “social brain”). From this early and primary disruption, abnormal brain development is canalized because the individual with an ASD must develop in a highly social world without the specialized neural systems that would ordinarily allow him or her to partake in the fabric of social life, which is woven from the thread of opportunities for social reciprocity and the tools of social engagement. This brain canalization gives rise to other characteristic behavioral deficits in ASD including deficits in communication, restricted interests, and repetitive behaviors. We propose that focused efforts to explore the brain mechanisms underlying the core, pathognomic deficits in the development of mechanisms for social engagement in ASD will greatly elucidate our understanding and treatment of this complex, devastating family of neurodevelopmental disorders. In particular, developmental studies (i.e., longitudinal studies of young children with and without ASD, as well as infants at increased risk for being identified with ASD) of the neural circuitry supporting key aspects of social information processing are likely to provide important insights into the underlying components of the full-syndrome of ASD. These studies could also contribute to the identification of developmental brain endophenotypes to facilitate genetic studies. The potential for this kind of approach is illustrated via examples of functional neuroimaging research from our own laboratory implicating the posterior superior temporal sulcus (STS) as a key player in the set of neural structures giving rise to ASD.
PMCID: PMC3096715  PMID: 21244421
25.  Early neural activation during facial affect processing in adolescents with Autism Spectrum Disorder☆ 
NeuroImage : Clinical  2014;7:203-212.
Impaired social interaction is one of the hallmarks of Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). Emotional faces are arguably the most critical visual social stimuli and the ability to perceive, recognize, and interpret emotions is central to social interaction and communication, and subsequently healthy social development. However, our understanding of the neural and cognitive mechanisms underlying emotional face processing in adolescents with ASD is limited. We recruited 48 adolescents, 24 with high functioning ASD and 24 typically developing controls. Participants completed an implicit emotional face processing task in the MEG. We examined spatiotemporal differences in neural activation between the groups during implicit angry and happy face processing. While there were no differences in response latencies between groups across emotions, adolescents with ASD had lower accuracy on the implicit emotional face processing task when the trials included angry faces. MEG data showed atypical neural activity in adolescents with ASD during angry and happy face processing, which included atypical activity in the insula, anterior and posterior cingulate and temporal and orbitofrontal regions. Our findings demonstrate differences in neural activity during happy and angry face processing between adolescents with and without ASD. These differences in activation in social cognitive regions may index the difficulties in face processing and in comprehension of social reward and punishment in the ASD group. Thus, our results suggest that atypical neural activation contributes to impaired affect processing, and thus social cognition, in adolescents with ASD.
•The ability to recognize and interpret emotions is central to social interaction.•Deficits in social interactions are hallmarks of autism spectrum disorder (ASD).•Adolescents with and without ASD completed an emotional face task in MEG.•MEG data showed atypical neural activity in ASD to both angry and happy faces.•Insula, cingulate, temporal and orbitofrontal activities were particularly affected in the ASD group.
PMCID: PMC4300004  PMID: 25610782
Implicit face processing; Adolescents; Autism Spectrum Disorder; Magnetoencephalography; Affect processing; Anterior cingulate cortex

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