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1.  Over-Reactive Brain Responses to Sensory Stimuli in Youth With Autism Spectrum Disorders RH: fMRI Response to Sensory Stimuli in ASD 
Objectives:
Sensory over-responsivity (SOR), defined as a negative response to or avoidance of sensory stimuli, is both highly prevalent and extremely impairing in youth with autism spectrum disorders (ASD), yet little is known about the neurological bases of SOR. This study aimed to examine the functional neural correlates of SOR by comparing brain responses to sensory stimuli in youth with and without ASD.
Method:
Twenty-five high-functioning youth with ASD and 25 age- and IQ-equivalent typically developing (TD) youth were presented with mildly aversive auditory and visual stimuli during a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scan. Parents provided ratings of children's SOR and anxiety symptom severity.
Results:
Compared to TD participants, ASD participants displayed greater activation in primary sensory cortical areas as well as amygdala, hippocampus, and orbital-frontal cortex. In both groups, the level of activity in these areas was positively correlated with level of SOR severity as rated by parents, over and above behavioral ratings of anxiety.
Conclusions:
This study demonstrates that youth with ASD show neural hyper-responsivity to sensory stimuli, and that behavioral symptoms of SOR may be related to both heightened responsivity in primary sensory regions as well as areas related to emotion processing, and regulation.
doi:10.1016/j.jaac.2013.08.004
PMCID: PMC3820504  PMID: 24157390
amygdala; anxiety; autism spectrum disorders; functional magnetic resonance; imaging (fMRI); sensory over-responsivity
2.  Associations Among Pubertal Development, Empathic Ability, and Neural Responses While Witnessing Peer Rejection in Adolescence 
Child development  2013;84(4):1338-1354.
Links among concurrent and longitudinal changes in pubertal development and empathic ability from age 10 to 13 and neural responses while witnessing peer rejection at age 13 were examined in 16 participants. More advanced pubertal development at age 13, and greater longitudinal increases in pubertal development, related to increased activity in regions underlying cognitive aspects of empathy. Likewise, at age 13 greater perspective taking related to activity in cognitive empathy-related regions; however, affective components of empathy (empathic concern and personal distress) were additionally associated with activity in affective pain-related regions. Longitudinal increases in empathic ability related to cognitive and affective empathy-related circuitry. Findings provide preliminary evidence that physical and cognitive-emotional development relate to adolescents’ neural responses when witnessing peer rejection.
doi:10.1111/cdev.12056
PMCID: PMC3659192  PMID: 23379360
3.  Atypical Neural Processing of Ironic and Sincere Remarks in Children and Adolescents with Autism Spectrum Disorders 
Metaphor and symbol  2012;27(1):70-92.
Individuals with ASD show consistent impairment in processing pragmatic language when attention to multiple social cues (e.g., facial expression, tone of voice) is often needed to navigate social interactions. Building upon prior fMRI work examining how facial affect and prosodic cues are used to infer a speaker's communicative intent, the authors examined whether children and adolescents with ASD differ from typically developing (TD) controls in their processing of sincere versus ironic remarks. At the behavioral level, children and adolescents with ASD and matched TD controls were able to determine whether a speaker's remark was sincere or ironic equally well, with both groups showing longer response times for ironic remarks. At the neural level, for both sincere and ironic scenarios, an extended cortical network—including canonical language areas in the left hemisphere and their right hemisphere counterparts—was activated in both groups, albeit to a lesser degree in the ASD sample. Despite overall similar patterns of activity observed for the two conditions in both groups, significant modulation of activity was detected when directly comparing sincere and ironic scenarios within and between groups. While both TD and ASD groups showed significantly greater activity in several nodes of this extended network when processing ironic versus sincere remarks, increased activity was largely confined to left language areas in TD controls, whereas the ASD sample showed a more bilateral activation profile which included both language and “theory of mind” areas (i.e., ventromedial prefrontal cortex). These findings suggest that, for high-functioning individuals with ASD, increased activity in right hemisphere homologues of language areas in the left hemisphere, as well as regions involved in social cognition, may reflect compensatory mechanisms supporting normative behavioral task performance.
doi:10.1080/10926488.2012.638856
PMCID: PMC3909704  PMID: 24497750
4.  Neural and Behavioral Responses During Self-Evaluative Processes Differ in Youth With and Without Autism 
This fMRI study investigated neural responses while making appraisals of self and other, across the social and academic domains, in children and adolescents with and without autism spectrum disorders (ASD). Compared to neurotypical youth, those with ASD exhibited hypoactivation of ventromedial prefrontal cortex during self-appraisals. Responses in middle cingulate cortex (MCC) and anterior insula (AI) also distinguished between groups. Stronger activity in MCC and AI during self-appraisals was associated with better social functioning in the ASD group. Although self-appraisals were significantly more positive in the neurotypical group, positivity was unrelated to brain activity in these regions. Together, these results suggest that multiple brain regions support making self-appraisals in neurotypical development, and function atypically in youth with ASD.
doi:10.1007/s10803-012-1563-3
PMCID: PMC3507334  PMID: 22760337
Autism; Self; Ventral mPFC; Anterior insula; Middle cingulate cortex; Development
5.  Reduced Functional Integration and Segregation of Distributed Neural Systems Underlying Social and Emotional Information Processing in Autism Spectrum Disorders 
Cerebral Cortex (New York, NY)  2011;22(5):1025-1037.
A growing body of evidence suggests that autism spectrum disorders (ASDs) are related to altered communication between brain regions. Here, we present findings showing that ASD is characterized by a pattern of reduced functional integration as well as reduced segregation of large-scale brain networks. Twenty-three children with ASD and 25 typically developing matched controls underwent functional magnetic resonance imaging while passively viewing emotional face expressions. We examined whole-brain functional connectivity of two brain structures previously implicated in emotional face processing in autism: the amygdala bilaterally and the right pars opercularis of the inferior frontal gyrus (rIFGpo). In the ASD group, we observed reduced functional integration (i.e., less long-range connectivity) between amygdala and secondary visual areas, as well as reduced segregation between amygdala and dorsolateral prefrontal cortex. For the rIFGpo seed, we observed reduced functional integration with parietal cortex and increased integration with right frontal cortex as well as right nucleus accumbens. Finally, we observed reduced segregation between rIFGpo and the ventromedial prefrontal cortex. We propose that a systems-level approach—whereby the integration and segregation of large-scale brain networks in ASD is examined in relation to typical development—may provide a more detailed characterization of the neural basis of ASD.
doi:10.1093/cercor/bhr171
PMCID: PMC3328339  PMID: 21784971
amygdala; connectivity; default mode network; face processing; mirror neuron system
6.  Atypical Neural Networks for Social Orienting in Autism Spectrum Disorders 
NeuroImage  2011;56(1):354-362.
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.
doi:10.1016/j.neuroimage.2011.02.031
PMCID: PMC3091391  PMID: 21334443
autism; attention; functional magnetic resonance imaging; gaze; social cue
7.  An fMRI investigation of responses to peer rejection in adolescents with autism spectrum disorders 
Peer rejection is particularly pervasive among adolescents with autism spectrum disorders (ASD). However, how adolescents with ASD differ from typically developing adolescents in their responses to peer rejection is poorly understood. The goal of the current investigation was to examine neural responses to peer exclusion among adolescents with ASD compared to typically developing adolescents. Nineteen adolescents with ASD and 17 typically developing controls underwent fMRI as they were ostensibly excluded by peers during an online game called Cyberball. Afterwards, participants reported their distress about the exclusion. Compared to typically developing adolescents, those with ASD displayed less activity in regions previously linked with the distressing aspect of peer exclusion, including the subgenual anterior cingulate and anterior insula, as well as less activity in regions previously linked with the regulation of distress responses during peer exclusion, including the ventrolateral prefrontal cortex and ventral striatum. Interestingly, however, both groups self-reported equivalent levels of distress. This suggests that adolescents with ASD may engage in differential processing of social experiences at the neural level, but be equally aware of, and concerned about, peer rejection. Overall, these findings contribute new insights about how this population may differentially experience negative social events in their daily lives.
doi:10.1016/j.dcn.2011.01.004
PMCID: PMC3272329  PMID: 22318914
Autism spectrum disorders; Peer rejection; Social exclusion; Adolescence; Functional magnetic resonance imaging
8.  COMT genotype affects prefrontal white matter pathways in children and adolescents 
NeuroImage  2010;53(3):926-934.
Diffusion tensor imaging is widely used to evaluate the development of white matter. Information about how alterations in major neurotransmitter systems, such as the dopamine (DA) system, influence this development in healthy children, however, is lacking. Catechol-O-metyltransferase (COMT) is the major enzyme responsible for DA degradation in prefrontal brain structures, for which there is a corresponding genetic polymorphism (val158met) that confers either a more or less efficient version of this enzyme. The result of this common genetic variation is that children may have more or less available synaptic DA in prefrontal brain regions. In the present study we examined the relation between diffusion properties of frontal white matter structures and the COMT val158met polymorphism in 40 children ages 9–15. We found that the val allele was associated with significantly elevated fractional anisotropy values and reduced axial and radial diffusivities. These results indicate that the development of white matter in healthy children is related to COMT genotype and that alterations in white matter may be related to the differential availability of prefrontal DA. This investigation paves the way for further studies of how common functional variants in the genome might influence the development of brain white matter.
doi:10.1016/j.neuroimage.2010.01.033
PMCID: PMC2902616  PMID: 20083203
COMT; children; diffusion tensor imaging; DTI; white matter; genotype; tractography; fractional anisotrophy

Results 1-8 (8)