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1.  Social Attention in a Virtual Public Speaking Task in Higher Functioning Children with Autism 
Impairments in social attention play a major role in autism, but little is known about their role in development after preschool. In this study a public speaking task was used to study social attention, its moderators, and its association with classroom learning in elementary and secondary students with higher functioning Autism Spectrum Disorder (HFASD).
Thirty-seven students with HFASD and 54 age and IQ-matched peers without symptoms of ASD were assessed in a virtual classroom public speaking paradigm. This paradigm assessed the ability to attend to 9 avatar peers seated at a table, while simultaneously answering self-referenced questions.
Students with HFASD looked less frequently to avatar peers in the classroom while talking. However, social attention was moderated in the HFASD sample such that students with lower IQ, and/or more symptoms of social anxiety, and/or more ADHD Inattentive symptoms, displayed more atypical social attention. Group differences were more pronounced when the classroom contained social avatars versus non-social targets. Moreover, measures of social attention rather than non-social attention were significantly associated with parent report and objective measures of learning in the classroom.
The data in this study supports the hypothesis of the Social Attention Model of ASD that social attention disturbance remains part of the school-aged phenotype of autism that is related to syndrome specific problems in social learning. More research of this kind would likely contribute to advances in the understanding of the development of autism and educational intervention approaches for affected school-aged children.
PMCID: PMC3778085  PMID: 23696132
2.  Infant Joint Attention, Neural Networks and Social Cognition 
Neural network models of attention can provide a unifying approach to the study of human cognitive and emotional development (Posner & Rothbart, 2007). This paper we argue that a neural networks approach to the infant development of joint attention can inform our understanding of the nature of human social learning, symbolic thought process and social cognition. At its most basic, joint attention involves the capacity to coordinate one’s own visual attention with that of another person. We propose that joint attention development involves increments in the capacity to engage in simultaneous or parallel processing of information about one’s own attention and the attention of other people. Infant practice with joint attention is both a consequence and organizer of the development of a distributed and integrated brain network involving frontal and parietal cortical systems. This executive distributed network first serves to regulate the capacity of infants to respond to and direct the overt behavior of other people in order to share experience with others through the social coordination of visual attention. In this paper we describe this parallel and distributed neural network model of joint attention development and discuss two hypotheses that stem from this model. One is that activation of this distributed network during coordinated attention enhances to depth of information processing and encoding beginning in the first year of life. We also propose that with development joint attention becomes internalized as the capacity to socially coordinate mental attention to internal representations. As this occurs the executive joint attention network makes vital contributions to the development of human symbolic thinking and social cognition.
PMCID: PMC2963105  PMID: 20884172
3.  Connected speech production in three variants of primary progressive aphasia 
Brain  2010;133(7):2069-2088.
Primary progressive aphasia is a clinical syndrome defined by progressive deficits isolated to speech and/or language, and can be classified into non-fluent, semantic and logopenic variants based on motor speech, linguistic and cognitive features. The connected speech of patients with primary progressive aphasia has often been dichotomized simply as ‘fluent’ or ‘non-fluent’, however fluency is a multidimensional construct that encompasses features such as speech rate, phrase length, articulatory agility and syntactic structure, which are not always impacted in parallel. In this study, our first objective was to improve the characterization of connected speech production in each variant of primary progressive aphasia, by quantifying speech output along a number of motor speech and linguistic dimensions simultaneously. Secondly, we aimed to determine the neuroanatomical correlates of changes along these different dimensions. We recorded, transcribed and analysed speech samples for 50 patients with primary progressive aphasia, along with neurodegenerative and normal control groups. Patients were scanned with magnetic resonance imaging, and voxel-based morphometry was used to identify regions where atrophy correlated significantly with motor speech and linguistic features. Speech samples in patients with the non-fluent variant were characterized by slow rate, distortions, syntactic errors and reduced complexity. In contrast, patients with the semantic variant exhibited normal rate and very few speech or syntactic errors, but showed increased proportions of closed class words, pronouns and verbs, and higher frequency nouns, reflecting lexical retrieval deficits. In patients with the logopenic variant, speech rate (a common proxy for fluency) was intermediate between the other two variants, but distortions and syntactic errors were less common than in the non-fluent variant, while lexical access was less impaired than in the semantic variant. Reduced speech rate was linked with atrophy to a wide range of both anterior and posterior language regions, but specific deficits had more circumscribed anatomical correlates. Frontal regions were associated with motor speech and syntactic processes, anterior and inferior temporal regions with lexical retrieval, and posterior temporal regions with phonological errors and several other types of disruptions to fluency. These findings demonstrate that a multidimensional quantification of connected speech production is necessary to characterize the differences between the speech patterns of each primary progressive aphasic variant adequately, and to reveal associations between particular aspects of connected speech and specific components of the neural network for speech production.
PMCID: PMC2892940  PMID: 20542982
primary progressive aphasia; progressive non-fluent aphasia; semantic dementia; logopenic progressive aphasia; speech production

Results 1-3 (3)