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.
Social motivation theory suggests that deficits in social reward processing underlie social impairments in autism spectrum disorders (ASD). However, the extent to which abnormalities in reward processing generalize to other classes of stimuli remains unresolved. The aim of the current study was to examine if reward processing abnormalities in ASD are specific to social stimuli or can be generalized to other classes of reward. Additionally, we sought to examine the results in the light of behavioral impairments in ASD.
Participants performed adapted versions of the social and monetary incentive delay tasks. Data from 21 unmedicated right-handed male participants with ASD and 21 age- and IQ-matched controls were analyzed using a factorial design to examine the blood-oxygen-level-dependent (BOLD) response during the anticipation and receipt of both reward types.
Behaviorally, the ASD group showed less of a reduction in reaction time (RT) for rewarded compared to unrewarded trials than the control group. In terms of the fMRI results, there were no significant group differences in reward circuitry during reward anticipation. During the receipt of rewards, there was a significant interaction between group and reward type in the left dorsal striatum (DS). The ASD group showed reduced activity in the DS compared to controls for social rewards but not monetary rewards and decreased activation for social rewards compared to monetary rewards. Controls showed no significant difference between the two reward types. Increased activation in the DS during social reward processing was associated with faster response times for rewarded trials, compared to unrewarded trials, in both groups. This is in line with behavioral results indicating that the ASD group showed less of a reduction in RT for rewarded compared to unrewarded trials. Additionally, de-activation to social rewards was associated with increased repetitive behavior in ASD.
In line with social motivation theory, the ASD group showed reduced activation, compared to controls, during the receipt of social rewards in the DS. Groups did not differ significantly during the processing of monetary rewards. BOLD activation in the DS, during social reward processing, was associated with behavioral impairments in ASD.
Autism; Reward; Social motivation; Striatum; Functional magnetic resonance imaging; fMRI
A leading hypothesis to explain the social dysfunction in people with autism spectrum disorders (ASD) is that they exhibit a deficit in reward processing and motivation specific to social stimuli. However, there have been few direct tests of this hypothesis to date. Here we used an instrumental reward learning task that contrasted learning with social rewards (pictures of positive and negative faces) against learning with monetary reward (winning and losing money). The two tasks were structurally identical except for the type of reward, permitting direct comparisons. We tested 10 high-functioning people with ASD (7M, 3F) and 10 healthy controls who were matched on gender, age, and education. We found no significant differences between the two groups in terms of overall ability behaviorally to discriminate positive from negative slot machines, reaction-times, and valence ratings, However, there was a specific impairment in the ASD group in learning to choose social rewards, compared to monetary rewards: they had a significantly lower cumulative number of choices of the most rewarding social slot machine, and had a significantly slower initial learning rate for the socially rewarding slot machine, compared to the controls. The findings show a deficit in reward learning in ASD that is greater for social rewards than for monetary rewards, and support the hypothesis of a disproportionate impairment in social reward processing in ASD.
social reward; monetary reward; autism
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.
Theory of mind; Reward; Nucleus accumbens; Middle temporal gyrus
This thematic series presents theoretical and empirical papers focused on understanding autism from the perspective of reward processing deficits. Although the core symptoms of autism have not traditionally been conceptualized with respect to altered reward-based processes, it is clear that brain reward circuitry plays a critical role in guiding social and nonsocial learning and behavior throughout development. Additionally, brain reward circuitry may respond to social sources of information in ways that are similar to responses to primary rewards, and recent clinical data consistently suggest abnormal behavioral and neurobiologic responses to rewards in autism. This thematic series presents empirical data and review papers that highlight the utility of considering autism from the perspective of reward processing deficits. Our hope is that this novel framework may further elucidate autism pathophysiology, with the ultimate goal of yielding novel insights with potential therapeutic implications.
According to one influential account, face processing atypicalities in autism reflect reduced reward value of faces, which results in limited attention to faces during development and a consequent failure to acquire face expertise. Surprisingly, however, there is a paucity of work directly investigating the reward value of faces for individuals with autism and the evidence for diminished face rewards in this population remains equivocal. In the current study, we measured how hard children with autism would work to view faces, using an effortful key-press sequence, and whether they were sensitive to the differential reward value of attractive and unattractive faces. Contrary to expectations, cognitively able children with autism did not differ from typically developing children of similar age and ability in their willingness to work to view faces. Moreover, the effort expended was strongly positively correlated with facial attractiveness ratings in both groups of children. There was also no evidence of atypical reward values for other, less social categories (cars and inverted faces) in the children with autism. These results speak against the possibility that face recognition difficulties in autism are explained by atypical reward value of faces.
Efficient effort expenditure to obtain rewards is critical for optimal goal-directed behavior and learning. Clinical observation suggests that individuals with autism spectrum disorders (ASD) may show dysregulated reward-based effort expenditure, but no behavioral study to date has assessed effort-based decision-making in ASD.
The current study compared a group of adults with ASD to a group of typically developing adults on the Effort Expenditure for Rewards Task (EEfRT), a behavioral measure of effort-based decision-making. In this task, participants were provided with the probability of receiving a monetary reward on a particular trial and asked to choose between either an “easy task” (less motoric effort) for a small, stable reward or a “hard task” (greater motoric effort) for a variable but consistently larger reward.
Participants with ASD chose the hard task more frequently than did the control group, yet were less influenced by differences in reward value and probability than the control group. Additionally, effort-based decision-making was related to repetitive behavior symptoms across both groups.
These results suggest that individuals with ASD may be more willing to expend effort to obtain a monetary reward regardless of the reward contingencies. More broadly, results suggest that behavioral choices may be less influenced by information about reward contingencies in individuals with ASD. This atypical pattern of effort-based decision-making may be relevant for understanding the heightened reward motivation for circumscribed interests in ASD.
Reward; Motivation; Decision-making; Autism spectrum disorders; Dopamine
Learning to make choices that yield rewarding outcomes requires the computation of three distinct signals: stimulus values that are used to guide choices at the time of decision making, experienced utility signals that are used to evaluate the outcomes of those decisions and prediction errors that are used to update the values assigned to stimuli during reward learning. Here we investigated whether monetary and social rewards involve overlapping neural substrates during these computations. Subjects engaged in two probabilistic reward learning tasks that were identical except that rewards were either social (pictures of smiling or angry people) or monetary (gaining or losing money). We found substantial overlap between the two types of rewards for all components of the learning process: a common area of ventromedial prefrontal cortex (vmPFC) correlated with stimulus value at the time of choice and another common area of vmPFC correlated with reward magnitude and common areas in the striatum correlated with prediction errors. Taken together, the findings support the hypothesis that shared anatomical substrates are involved in the computation of both monetary and social rewards.
social reward; monetary reward; ventromedial prefrontal cortex; ventral striatum
Social interaction deficits and restricted repetitive behaviors and interests that characterize autism spectrum disorders (ASDs) may both reflect aberrant functioning of brain reward circuits. However, no neuroimaging study to date has investigated the integrity of reward circuits using an incentive delay paradigm in individuals with ASDs. In the present study, we used functional magnetic resonance imaging to assess blood-oxygen level-dependent activation during reward anticipation and outcomes in 15 participants with an ASD and 16 matched control participants. Brain activation was assessed during anticipation of and in response to monetary incentives and object image incentives previously shown to be visually salient for individuals with ASDs (e.g. trains, electronics). Participants with ASDs showed decreased nucleus accumbens activation during monetary anticipation and outcomes, but not during object anticipation or outcomes. Group × reward-type-interaction tests revealed robust interaction effects in bilateral nucleus accumbens during reward anticipation and in ventromedial prefrontal cortex during reward outcomes, indicating differential responses contingent on reward type in these regions. Results suggest that ASDs are characterized by reward-circuitry hypoactivation in response to monetary incentives but not in response to autism-relevant object images. The clinical implications of the double dissociation of reward type and temporal phase in reward circuitry function in ASD are discussed.
autism; reward; nucleus accumbens; anticipation; functional magnetic resonance imaging
Motivation for goal-directed behaviour largely depends on the expected value of the anticipated reward. The aim of the present study was to examine how different levels of reward value are coded in the brain for two common forms of human reward: money and social approval. To account for gender differences 16 male and 16 female participants performed an incentive delay task expecting to win either money or positive social feedback. fMRI recording during the anticipation phase revealed proportional activation of neural structures constituting the human reward system for increasing levels of reward, independent of incentive type. However, in men activation in the prospect of monetary rewards encompassed a wide network of mesolimbic brain regions compared to only limited activation for social rewards. In contrast, in women, anticipation of either incentive type activated identical brain regions. Our findings represent an important step towards a better understanding of motivated behaviour by taking into account individual differences in reward valuation.
anticipation; social reward; monetary reward; gender; nucleus accumbens
Autism spectrum disorders (ASD) are associated with severe impairments in social functioning. Because faces provide nonverbal cues that support social interactions, many studies of ASD have examined neural structures that process faces, including the amygdala, ventromedial prefrontal cortex and superior and middle temporal gyri. However, increases or decreases in activation are often contingent on the cognitive task. Specifically, the cognitive domain of attention influences group differences in brain activation. We investigated brain function abnormalities in participants with ASD using a task that monitored attention bias to emotional faces.
Twenty-four participants (12 with ASD, 12 controls) completed a functional magnetic resonance imaging study while performing an attention cuing task with emotional (happy, sad, angry) and neutral faces.
In response to emotional faces, those in the ASD group showed greater right amygdala activation than those in the control group. A preliminary psychophysiological connectivity analysis showed that ASD participants had stronger positive right amygdala and ventromedial prefrontal cortex coupling and weaker positive right amygdala and temporal lobe coupling than controls. There were no group differences in the behavioural measure of attention bias to the emotional faces.
The small sample size may have affected our ability to detect additional group differences.
When attention bias to emotional faces was equivalent between ASD and control groups, ASD was associated with greater amygdala activation. Preliminary analyses showed that ASD participants had stronger connectivity between the amygdala ventromedial prefrontal cortex (a network implicated in emotional modulation) and weaker connectivity between the amygdala and temporal lobe (a pathway involved in the identification of facial expressions, although areas of group differences were generally in a more anterior region of the temporal lobe than what is typically reported for emotional face processing). These alterations in connectivity are consistent with emotion and face processing disturbances in ASD.
It has recently been suggested that schizophrenia involves dysfunction in brain connectivity at a neural level, and a dysfunction in reward processing at a behavioral level. The purpose of the present study was to link these two levels of analyses by examining effective connectivity patterns between brain regions mediating reward learning in patients with schizophrenia and healthy, age-matched controls. To this aim, we used functional magnetic resonance imaging and galvanic skin recordings (GSR) while patients and controls performed an appetitive conditioning experiment with visual cues as the conditioned (CS) stimuli, and monetary reward as the appetitive unconditioned stimulus (US). Based on explicit stimulus contingency ratings, conditioning occurred in both groups; however, based on implicit, physiological GSR measures, patients failed to show differences between CS+ and CS− conditions. Healthy controls exhibited increased blood-oxygen-level dependent (BOLD) activity across striatal, hippocampal, and prefrontal regions and increased effective connectivity from the ventral striatum to the orbitofrontal cortex (OFC BA 11) in the CS+ compared to the CS− condition. Compared to controls, patients showed increased BOLD activity across a similar network of brain regions, and increased effective connectivity from the striatum to hippocampus and prefrontal regions in the CS− compared to the CS+ condition. The findings of increased BOLD activity and effective connectivity in response to the CS− in patients with schizophrenia offer insight into the aberrant assignment of motivational salience to non-reinforced stimuli during conditioning that is thought to accompany schizophrenia.
schizophrenia; appetitive conditioning; fMRI; effective connectivity
Intuitive grasping of the meaning of subtle social cues is particularly affected in autism spectrum disorders (ASD). Despite their relevance in social communication, the effect of averted gaze in fearful faces in conveying a signal of environmental threat has not been investigated using real face stimuli in adults with ASD. Here, using functional MRI, we show that briefly presented fearful faces with averted gaze, previously shown to be a strong communicative signal of environmental danger, produce different patterns of brain activation than fearful faces with direct gaze in a group of 26 normally intelligent adults with ASD compared with 26 matched controls. While implicit cue of threat produces brain activation in attention, emotion processing and mental state attribution networks in controls, this effect is absent in individuals with ASD. Instead, individuals with ASD show activation in the subcortical face-processing system in response to direct eye contact. An effect of differences in looking behavior was excluded in a separate eye tracking experiment. Our data suggest that individuals with ASD are more sensitive to direct eye contact than to social signals of danger conveyed by averted fearful gaze.
Autism is a developmental disorder characterized by decreased interest and engagement in social interactions and by enhanced self-focus. While previous theoretical approaches to understanding autism have emphasized social impairments and altered interpersonal interactions, there is a recent shift towards understanding the nature of the representation of the self in individuals with autism spectrum disorders (ASD). Still, the neural mechanisms subserving self-representations in ASD are relatively unexplored.
We used event-related fMRI to investigate brain responsiveness to images of the subjects' own face and to faces of others. Children with ASD and typically developing (TD) children viewed randomly presented digital morphs between their own face and a gender-matched other face, and made “self/other” judgments. Both groups of children activated a right premotor/prefrontal system when identifying images containing a greater percentage of the self face. However, while TD children showed activation of this system during both self- and other-processing, children with ASD only recruited this system while viewing images containing mostly their own face.
This functional dissociation between the representation of self versus others points to a potential neural substrate for the characteristic self-focus and decreased social understanding exhibited by these individuals, and suggests that individuals with ASD lack the shared neural representations for self and others that TD children and adults possess and may use to understand others.
Problems with reward system function have been posited as a primary difficulty in autism spectrum disorders. The current study examined an electrophysiological marker of feedback monitoring, the feedback-related negativity (FRN), during a monetary reward task. The study advanced prior understanding by focusing exclusively on a developmental sample, applying rigorous diagnostic characterization and introducing an experimental paradigm providing more subtly different feedback valence (reward versus non-reward instead of reward versus loss).
Twenty-six children with autism spectrum disorder and 28 typically developing peers matched on age and full-scale IQ played a guessing game resulting in monetary gain (“win”) or neutral outcome (“draw”). ERP components marking early visual processing (N1, P2) and feedback appraisal (FRN) were contrasted between groups in each condition, and their relationships to behavioral measures of social function and dysfunction, social anxiety, and autism symptomatology were explored.
FRN was observed on draw trials relative to win trials. Consistent with prior research, children with ASD exhibited a FRN to suboptimal outcomes that was comparable to typical peers. ERP parameters were unrelated to behavioral measures.
Results of the current study indicate typical patterns of feedback monitoring in the context of monetary reward in ASD. The study extends prior findings of normative feedback monitoring to a sample composed exclusively of children and demonstrates that, as in typical development, individuals with autism exhibit a FRN to suboptimal outcomes, irrespective of neutral or negative valence. Results do not support a pervasive problem with reward system function in ASD, instead suggesting any dysfunction lies in more specific domains, such as social perception, or in response to particular feedback-monitoring contexts, such as self-evaluation of one’s errors.
Autism spectrum disorder; Reward processing; Event-related potentials; Electroencephalography; ERP; EEG; Feedback-related negativity; Medial-frontal negativity
The autism spectrum disorders (ASDs) arise from a diverse array of genetic and environmental origins that disrupt the typical developmental trajectory of neural connectivity and synaptogenesis. ASDs are marked by dysfunctional social behavior and cognition, among other deficits. Greater understanding of the biological substrates of typical social behavior in animal models will further our understanding of the etiology of ASDs. Despite the precision and tractability of molecular genetics models of ASDs in rodents, these organisms lack the complexity of human social behavior, thus limiting their impact on understanding ASDs to basic mechanisms. Non-human primates (NHPs) provide an attractive, complementary model for ASDs, due in part to the complexity and dynamics of social structures, reliance on vision for social signaling, and deep homology in brain circuitry mediating social behavior and reward. This knowledge is based on a rich literature, compiled over 50 years of observing primate behavior in the wild, which, in the case of rhesus macaques, is complemented by a large body of research characterizing neuronal activity during cognitive behavior. Several recent developments in this field are directly relevant to ASDs, including how the brain represents the perceptual features of social stimuli, how social information influences attention processes in the brain, and how the value of social interaction is computed. Because the symptoms of ASDs may represent extreme manifestations of traits that vary in intensity within the general population, we will additionally discuss ways in which nonhuman primates also show variation in social behavior and reward sensitivity. In cases where variation in species-typical behavior is analogous to similar variations in human behavior, we believe that study of the neural circuitry underlying this variation will provide important insights into the systems-level mechanisms contributing to ASD pathology.
Autism; Asperger’s; Non-human primate; Monkey
Purpose of review
This paper reviews current work investigating the neural bases of autism spectrum disorder (ASD) within the discipline of electrophysiological brain research. The manuscript focuses primarily on advances in understanding related to social information processing and interconnectivity among brain systems in ASD.
Recent research indicates anomalous function of social brain regions in ASD and highlights the specificity of processing problems to these systems. Atypical activity in this circuitry may reflect genetic susceptibility for ASD, with increased activity in compensatory areas marking the distinction between developing or not developing the disorder. Advances in understanding connectivity in ASD are highlighted by novel work providing initial evidence of atypical interconnectivity in infancy.
Emerging understanding of neural dysfunction in ASD indicates consistent but heterogeneous dysfunction across brain systems in ASD. Key objectives for the immediate future include: the use of multimethod approaches that encompass temporal and spatial imaging; behavioral phenotyping carried out in developmental context to reveal subgroups defined uniquely by trajectories; and individual-specific profiles of behavioral performance and brain function.
Autism Spectrum Disorder; social neuroscience; electrophysiology; EEG; ERP
Although it has been suggested that individuals with an Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) process faces less holistically than typically developing controls, there are few direct investigations of this hypothesis. This question was addressed before using the composite paradigm (Teunisse & de Gelder, 2003). The results had revealed that adolescents with ASDs were less sensitive than controls to the misalignment of face parts and it was concluded their face processing was less holistic. However, because of shortcomings of the design, it was not possible to distinguish whether individuals with Autism processed both aligned and misaligned composites in a part-based fashion, or both in a holistic fashion. We compared adolescents with ASDs to controls matched on sex, age and IQ on a more complete version of the composite paradigm. The results indicate that individuals with ASDs, like controls, experience interference from facial features that they are told to ignore. However, while such interference is released for controls if parts of face composites are misaligned, individuals with ASDs show comparable interference from irrelevant parts regardless of alignment. Two different interpretations are discussed, both compatible with the idea that perceptual and or attentional abnormalities in ASDs result in a diminished level of expertise for faces.
There has been significant progress in identifying genes that confer risk for autism spectrum disorders (ASDs). However, the heterogeneity of symptom presentation in ASDs impedes the detection of ASD risk genes. One approach to understanding genetic influences on ASD symptom expression is to evaluate relations between variants of ASD candidate genes and neural endophenotypes in unaffected samples. Allelic variations in the oxytocin receptor (OXTR) gene confer small but significant risk for ASDs for which the underlying mechanisms may involve associations between variability in oxytocin signaling pathways and neural response to rewards. The purpose of this preliminary study was to investigate the influence of allelic variability in the OXTR gene on neural responses to monetary rewards in healthy adults using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI).
The moderating effects of three single nucleotide polymorphisms (SNPs) (rs1042778, rs2268493 and rs237887) of the OXTR gene on mesolimbic responses to rewards were evaluated using a monetary incentive delay fMRI task.
T homozygotes of the rs2268493 SNP demonstrated relatively decreased activation in mesolimbic reward circuitry (including the nucleus accumbens, amygdala, insula, thalamus and prefrontal cortical regions) during the anticipation of rewards but not during the outcome phase of the task. Allelic variation of the rs1042778 and rs237887 SNPs did not moderate mesolimbic activation during either reward anticipation or outcomes.
This preliminary study suggests that the OXTR SNP rs2268493, which has been previously identified as an ASD risk gene, moderates mesolimbic responses during reward anticipation. Given previous findings of decreased mesolimbic activation during reward anticipation in ASD, the present results suggest that OXTR may confer ASD risk via influences on the neural systems that support reward anticipation.
Autism spectrum disorder (ASD); Oxytocin; Oxytocin receptor; Genetics; Neuroimaging; Reward; Motivation; Mesolimbic; Functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI); Single nucleotide polymorphism (SNP)
The social motivation hypothesis posits that aberrant neural response to human faces in autism is attributable to atypical social development and consequently reduced exposure to faces. The specificity of deficits in neural specialization remains unclear, and alternative theories suggest generalized processing difficulties. The current study contrasted neural specialization for social information versus non-social information in 36 individuals with autism and 18 typically developing individuals matched for age, race, sex, handedness, and cognitive ability. Event-related potentials elicited by faces, inverted faces, houses, letters, and pseudoletters were recorded. Groups were compared on an electrophysiological marker of neural specialization (N170), as well as behavioral performance on standardized measures of face recognition and word reading/decoding. Consistent with prior results, individuals with autism displayed slowed face processing and decreased sensitivity to face inversion; however, they showed comparable brain responses to letters, which were associated with behavioral performance in both groups. Results suggest that individuals with autism display atypical neural specialization for social information but intact specialization for non-social information. They concord with the notion of specific dysfunction in social brain systems rather than non-specific information processing difficulties in autism.
Perceptual expertise; N170; event-related potential (ERP/EEG); face perception; autism spectrum disorder
Autism spectrum disorders (ASD) are characterized by significant social impairments, including deficits in orienting attention following social cues. Behavioral studies investigating social orienting in ASD, however, have yielded mixed results, as the use of naturalistic paradigms typically reveals clear deficits whereas computerized laboratory experiments often report normative behavior. The present study is the first to examine the neural mechanisms underlying social orienting in ASD in order to provide new insight into the social attention impairments that characterize this disorder. Using fMRI, we examined the neural correlates of social orienting in children and adolescents with ASD and in a matched sample of typically developing (TD) controls while they performed a spatial cueing paradigm with social (eye gaze) and nonsocial (arrow) cues. Cues were either directional (indicating left or right) or neutral (indicating no direction), and directional cues were uninformative of the upcoming target location in order to engage automatic processes by minimizing expectations. Behavioral results demonstrated intact orienting effects for social and nonsocial cues, with no differences between groups. The imaging results, however, revealed clear group differences in brain activity. When attention was directed by social cues compared to nonsocial cues, the TD group showed increased activity in frontoparietal attention networks, visual processing regions, and the striatum, whereas the ASD group only showed increased activity in the superior parietal lobule. Significant group × cue type interactions confirmed greater responsivity in task-relevant networks for social cues than nonsocial cues in TD as compared to ASD, despite similar behavioral performance. These results indicate that, in the autistic brain, social cues are not assigned the same privileged status as they are in the typically developing brain. These findings provide the first empirical evidence that the neural circuitry involved in social orienting is disrupted in ASD and highlight that normative behavioral performance in a laboratory setting may reflect compensatory mechanisms rather than intact social attention.
autism; attention; functional magnetic resonance imaging; gaze; social cue
Understanding a speaker’s communicative intent in everyday interactions is likely to draw on cues such as facial expression and tone of voice. Prior research has shown that individuals with autism spectrum disorders (ASD) show reduced activity in brain regions that respond selectively to the face and voice. However, there is also evidence that activity in key regions can be increased if task demands allow for explicit processing of emotion.
To examine the neural circuitry underlying impairments in interpreting communicative intentions in ASD using irony comprehension as a test case, and to determine whether explicit instructions to attend to facial expression and tone of voice will elicit more normative patterns of brain activity.
Design, Setting, and Participants
Eighteen boys with ASD (aged 7–17 years, full-scale IQ >70) and 18 typically developing (TD) boys underwent functional magnetic resonance imaging at the Ahmanson-Lovelace Brain Mapping Center, University of California, Los Angeles.
Main Outcome Measures
Blood oxygenation level– dependent brain activity during the presentation of short scenarios involving irony. Behavioral performance (accuracy and response time) was also recorded.
Reduced activity in the medial prefrontal cortex and right superior temporal gyrus was observed in children with ASD relative to TD children during the perception of potentially ironic vs control scenarios. Importantly, a significant group X condition interaction in the medial prefrontal cortex showed that activity was modulated by explicit instructions to attend to facial expression and tone of voice only in the ASD group. Finally, medial prefrontal cortex activity was inversely related to symptom severity in children with ASD such that children with greater social impairment showed less activity in this region.
Explicit instructions to attend to facial expression and tone of voice can elicit increased activity in the medial prefrontal cortex, part of a network important for understanding the intentions of others, in children with ASD. These findings suggest a strategy for future intervention research.
Individuals with Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD) typically show impaired eye contact during social interactions. From a young age, they look less at faces than typically developing (TD) children and tend to avoid direct gaze. However, the reason for this behavior remains controversial; ASD children might avoid eye contact because they perceive the eyes as aversive or because they do not find social engagement through mutual gaze rewarding.
We monitored pupillary diameter as a measure of autonomic response in children with ASD (n = 20, mean age = 12.4) and TD controls (n = 18, mean age = 13.7) while they looked at faces displaying different emotions. Each face displayed happy, fearful, angry or neutral emotions with the gaze either directed to or averted from the subjects.
Overall, children with ASD and TD controls showed similar pupillary responses; however, they differed significantly in their sensitivity to gaze direction for happy faces. Specifically, pupillary diameter increased among TD children when viewing happy faces with direct gaze as compared to those with averted gaze, whereas children with ASD did not show such sensitivity to gaze direction. We found no group differences in fixation that could explain the differential pupillary responses. There was no effect of gaze direction on pupil diameter for negative affect or neutral faces among either the TD or ASD group.
We interpret the increased pupillary diameter to happy faces with direct gaze in TD children to reflect the intrinsic reward value of a smiling face looking directly at an individual. The lack of this effect in children with ASD is consistent with the hypothesis that individuals with ASD may have reduced sensitivity to the reward value of social stimuli.
Autism; Pupillary response; Reward processing
Individuals with autism spectrum disorders (ASD) demonstrate increased visual attention and elevated brain reward circuitry responses to images related to circumscribed interests (CI), suggesting that a heightened affective response to CI may underlie their disproportionate salience and reward value in ASD. To determine if individuals with ASD differ from typically developing (TD) adults in their subjective emotional experience of CI object images, non-CI object images and social images, 213 TD adults and 56 adults with ASD provided arousal ratings (sensation of being energized varying along a dimension from calm to excited) and valence ratings (emotionality varying along dimension of approach to withdrawal) for a series of 114 images derived from previous research on CI. The groups did not differ on arousal ratings for any image type, but ASD adults provided higher valence ratings than TD adults for CI-related images, and lower valence ratings for social images. Even after co-varying the effects of sex, the ASD group, but not the TD group, gave higher valence ratings to CI images than social images. These findings provide additional evidence that ASD is characterized by a preference for certain categories of non-social objects and a reduced preference for social stimuli, and support the dissemination of this image set for examining aspects of the circumscribed interest phenotype in ASD.
Individuals with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) often have difficulty with social-emotional cues. This study examined the neural, behavioral, and autonomic correlates of emotional face processing in adolescents with ASD and typical development (TD) using eye-tracking and event-related potentials (ERPs) across two different paradigms. Scanning of faces was similar across groups in the first task, but the second task found that face-sensitive ERPs varied with emotional expressions only in TD. Further, ASD showed enhanced neural responding to non-social stimuli. In TD only, attention to eyes during eye-tracking related to faster face-sensitive ERPs in a separate task; in ASD, a significant positive association was found between autonomic activity and attention to mouths. Overall, ASD showed an atypical pattern of emotional face processing, with reduced neural differentiation between emotions and a reduced relationship between gaze behavior and neural processing of faces.
Autism spectrum disorder; Eye-tracking; Event-related potentials; Pupillometry; Emotional face processing