More than half of youth with autism spectrum disorders (ASDs) have sensory overresponsivity (SOR), an extreme negative reaction to sensory stimuli. However, little is known about the neurobiological basis of SOR, and there are few effective treatments. Understanding whether SOR is due to an initial heightened sensory response or to deficits in regulating emotional reactions to stimuli has important implications for intervention.
To determine differences in brain responses, habituation, and connectivity during exposure to mildly aversive sensory stimuli in youth with ASDs and SOR compared with youth with ASDs without SOR and compared with typically developing control subjects.
DESIGN, SETTING, AND PARTICIPANTS
Functional magnetic resonance imaging was used to examine brain responses and habituation to mildly aversive auditory and tactile stimuli in 19 high-functioning youths with ASDs and 19 age- and IQ-matched, typically developing youths (age range, 9-17 years). Brain activity was related to parents’ ratings of children's SOR symptoms. Functional connectivity between the amygdala and orbitofrontal cortex was compared between ASDs subgroups with and without SOR and typically developing controls without SOR. The study dates were March 2012 through February 2014.
MAIN OUTCOMES AND MEASURES
Relative increases in blood oxygen level–dependent signal response across the whole brain and within the amygdala during exposure to sensory stimuli compared with fixation, as well as correlation between blood oxygen level–dependent signal change in the amygdala and orbitofrontal cortex.
The mean age in both groups was 14 years and the majority in both groups (16 of 19 each) were male. Compared with neurotypical control participants, participants with ASDs displayed stronger activation in primary sensory cortices and the amygdala (P < .05, corrected). This activity was positively correlated with SOR symptoms after controlling for anxiety. The ASDs with SOR subgroup had decreased neural habituation to stimuli in sensory cortices and the amygdala compared with groups without SOR. Youth with ASDs without SOR showed a pattern of amygdala downregulation, with negative connectivity between the amygdala and orbitofrontal cortex (thresholded at z > 1.70, P < .05).
CONCLUSIONS AND RELEVANCE
Results demonstrate that youth with ASDs and SOR show sensorilimbic hyperresponsivity to mildly aversive tactile and auditory stimuli, particularly to multiple modalities presented simultaneously, and show that this hyperresponsivity is due to failure to habituate. In addition, findings suggest that a subset of youth with ASDs can regulate their responses through prefrontal downregulation of amygdala activity. Implications for intervention include minimizing exposure to multiple sensory modalities and building coping strategies for regulating emotional response to stimuli.
The mature brain is organized into distinct neural networks defined by regions demonstrating correlated activity during task performance as well as rest. While research has begun to examine differences in these networks between children and adults, little is known about developmental changes during early adolescence. Using functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI), we examined the Default Mode Network (DMN) and the Central Executive Network (CEN) at ages 10 and 13 in a longitudinal sample of 45 participants. In the DMN, participants showed increasing integration (i.e., stronger within-network correlations) between the posterior cingulate cortex (PCC) and the medial prefrontal cortex. During this time frame participants also showed increased segregation (i.e., weaker between-network correlations) between the PCC and the CEN. Similarly, from age 10 to 13, participants showed increased connectivity between the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex and other CEN nodes, as well as increasing DMN segregation. IQ was significantly positively related to CEN integration at age 10, and between-network segregation at both ages. These findings highlight early adolescence as a period of significant maturation for the brain’s functional architecture and demonstrate the utility of longitudinal designs to investigate neural network development.
Temporal processing refers to our ability to “sense” or register the passage of time and to use that information to guide behavior. There is evidence that children with autism spectrum disorders (ASD) differ from children without ASD in their ability to process temporal information. Prior research has shown that age and working memory (the ability to hold and manipulate information in short-term memory storage) impact performance on temporal processing tasks in typically developing children, but it is not known whether there are similar associations in youth with ASD. It is also known that children with high levels of inattention and hyperactivity/impulsivity, who do not have ASD, tend to perform more poorly on measures of temporal processing. Our study examined the effects of working memory, age, and inattention/hyperactivity on the accuracy and consistency of temporal processing in 27 high-functioning youth with ASD and 25 youth without ASD. Our results show that youth with ASD are less accurate and less consistent in their ability to estimate time intervals, relative to typically developing youth. The difference in accuracy between the groups is more pronounced at younger ages, while working memory has a differential effect on consistency. Within the ASD group, inattention/hyperactivity was not associated with either accuracy or consistency. This study shows for the first time that both age and working memory affect how youth with and without ASD perceive and represent the passage of time.
Impaired temporal processing has historically been viewed as a hallmark feature of attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). Recent evidence suggests temporal processing deficits may also be characteristic of autism spectrum disorder (ASD). However, little is known about the factors that impact temporal processing in children with ASD. The purpose of this study was to assess the effects of co-morbid attention problems, working memory (WM), age, and their interactions, on time reproduction in youth with and without ASD.
Twenty-seven high functioning individuals with ASD and 25 demographically comparable typically developing individuals (ages 9–17; 85% male) were assessed on measures of time reproduction, auditory WM, and inattention/hyperactivity. The time reproduction task required depression of a computer key to mimic interval durations of 4, 8, 12, 16, or 20 seconds. Mixed effects regression analyses were used to model accuracy and variability of time reproduction as functions of diagnostic group, interval duration, age, WM, and inattention/hyperactivity.
A significant group by age interaction was detected for accuracy, with the deficit in the ASD group being greater in younger children. There was a significant group by WM interaction for consistency, with the effects of poor WM on performance consistency being more pronounced in youth with ASD. All participants tended to underestimate longer interval durations and to be less consistent for shorter interval durations; these effects appeared more pronounced in those who were younger or who had poorer working memory performance. Inattention/hyperactivity symptoms in the ASD group were not related to either accuracy or consistency.
This study highlights the potential value of temporal processing as an intermediate trait of relevance to multiple neurodevelopmental disorders.
Neuroimaging investigations of autism spectrum disorders (ASDs) have advanced our understanding of atypical brain function and structure, and have recently converged on a model of altered network-level connectivity. Traditional task-based functional magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) and volume-based structural MRI studies have identified widespread atypicalities in brain regions involved in social behavior and other core ASD-related behavioral deficits. More recent advances in MR-neuroimaging methods allow for quantification of brain connectivity using diffusion tensor imaging, functional connectivity, and graph theoretic methods. These newer techniques have moved the field toward a systems-level understanding of ASD etiology, integrating functional and structural measures across distal brain regions. Neuroimaging findings in ASD as a whole have been mixed and at times contradictory, likely due to the vast genetic and phenotypic heterogeneity characteristic of the disorder. Future longitudinal studies of brain development will be crucial to yield insights into mechanisms of disease etiology in ASD sub-populations. Advances in neuroimaging methods and large-scale collaborations will also allow for an integrated approach linking neuroimaging, genetics, and phenotypic data.
Arterial Spin Labeling (ASL) perfusion image series have recently been utilized for functional connectivity (FC) analysis in healthy volunteers and children with autism spectrum disorders (ASD). Noise reduction by using nuisance variables has been shown to be necessary to minimize potential confounding effects of head motion and physiological signals on BOLD based FC analysis. The purpose of the present study is to systematically evaluate the effectiveness of different noise reduction strategies (NRS) using nuisance variables to improve perfusion based FC analysis in two cohorts of healthy adults using state of the art 3D background-suppressed (BS) GRASE pseudo-continuous ASL (pCASL) and dual-echo 2D-EPI pCASL sequences. Five different NRS were performed in healthy volunteers to compare their performance. We then compared seed-based FC analysis using 3D BS GRASE pCASL in a cohort of 12 children with ASD (3f/9m, age 12.8 ± 1.3 years) and 13 typically developing (TD) children (1f/12m; age 13.9 ± 3 years) in conjunction with NRS. Regression of different combinations of nuisance variables affected FC analysis from a seed in the posterior cingulate cortex (PCC) to other areas of the default mode network (DMN) in both BOLD and pCASL data sets. Consistent with existing literature on BOLD-FC, we observed improved spatial specificity after physiological noise reduction and improved long-range connectivity using head movement related regressors. Furthermore, 3D BS GRASE pCASL shows much higher temporal SNR compared to dual-echo 2D-EPI pCASL and similar effects of noise reduction as those observed for BOLD. Seed-based FC analysis using 3D BS GRASE pCASL in children with ASD and TD children showed that noise reduction including physiological and motion related signals as nuisance variables is crucial for identifying altered long-range connectivity from PCC to frontal brain areas associated with ASD. This is the first study that systematically evaluated the effects of different NRS on ASL based FC analysis. 3D BS GRASE pCASL is the preferred ASL sequence for FC analysis due to its superior temporal SNR. Removing physiological noise and motion parameters is critical for detecting altered FC in neurodevelopmental disorders such as ASD.
functional connectivity (FC); noise reduction; default mode network (DMN); arterial spin labeling (ASL); blood oxygenation level dependent (BOLD); cerebral blood flow (CBF)
Neuroimaging studies can shed light on the neurobiological underpinnings of autism spectrum disorders (ASD). Studies of the resting brain have shown both altered baseline metabolism from PET/SPECT and altered functional connectivity (FC) of intrinsic brain networks based on resting-state fMRI. To date, however, no study has investigated these two physiological parameters of resting brain function jointly, or explored the relationship between these measures and ASD symptom severity.
Here, we used pseudo-continuous arterial spin labeling with 3D background-suppressed GRASE to assess resting cerebral blood flow (CBF) and FC in 17 youth with ASD and 22 matched typically developing (TD) children.
A pattern of altered resting perfusion was found in ASD versus TD children including frontotemporal hyperperfusion and hypoperfusion in the dorsal anterior cingulate cortex. We found increased local FC in the anterior module of the default mode network (DMN) accompanied by decreased CBF in the same area. In our cohort, both alterations were associated with greater social impairments as assessed with the Social Responsiveness Scale (SRS-total T scores). While FC was correlated with CBF in TD children, this association between FC and baseline perfusion was disrupted in children with ASD. Furthermore, there was reduced long-range FC between anterior and posterior modules of the DMN in children with ASD.
Taken together, the findings of this study – the first to jointly assess resting CBF and FC in ASD – highlight new avenues for identifying novel imaging markers of ASD symptomatology.
arterial spin labeling; autism spectrum disorder; cerebral blood flow; default mode network; dorsal ACC; functional connectivity
Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) captures the dynamics of brain development with multiple modalities that quantify both structure and function. These measurements may yield valuable insights into the neural patterns that mark healthy maturation or that identify early risk for psychiatric disorder. The Pediatric Template of Brain Perfusion (PTBP) is a free and public neuroimaging resource that will help accelerate the understanding of childhood brain development as seen through the lens of multiple modality neuroimaging and in relation to cognitive and environmental factors. The PTBP uses cross-sectional and longitudinal MRI to quantify cortex, white matter, resting state functional connectivity and brain perfusion, as measured by Arterial Spin Labeling (ASL), in 120 children 7–18 years of age. We describe the PTBP and show, as a demonstration of validity, that global summary measurements capture the trajectories that demarcate critical turning points in brain maturation. This novel resource will allow a more detailed understanding of the network-level, structural and functional landmarks that are obtained during normal adolescent brain development.
Autism spectrum disorders (ASD) represent a formidable challenge for
psychiatry and neuroscience because of their high prevalence, life-long nature,
complexity and substantial heterogeneity. Facing these obstacles requires
large-scale multidisciplinary efforts. While the field of genetics has pioneered
data sharing for these reasons, neuroimaging had not kept pace. In response, we
introduce the Autism Brain Imaging Data Exchange (ABIDE) – a grassroots
consortium aggregating and openly sharing 1112 existing resting-state functional
magnetic resonance imaging (R-fMRI) datasets with corresponding structural MRI
and phenotypic information from 539 individuals with ASD and 573 age-matched
typical controls (TC; 7–64 years) (http://fcon_1000.projects.nitrc.org/indi/abide/). Here, we
present this resource and demonstrate its suitability for advancing knowledge of
ASD neurobiology based on analyses of 360 males with ASD and 403 male
age-matched TC. We focused on whole-brain intrinsic functional connectivity and
also survey a range of voxel-wise measures of intrinsic functional brain
architecture. Whole-brain analyses reconciled seemingly disparate themes of both
hypo and hyperconnectivity in the ASD literature; both were detected, though
hypoconnectivity dominated, particularly for cortico-cortical and
interhemispheric functional connectivity. Exploratory analyses using an array of
regional metrics of intrinsic brain function converged on common loci of
dysfunction in ASD (mid and posterior insula, posterior cingulate cortex), and
highlighted less commonly explored regions such as thalamus. The survey of the
ABIDE R-fMRI datasets provides unprecedented demonstrations of both replication
and novel discovery. By pooling multiple international datasets, ABIDE is
expected to accelerate the pace of discovery setting the stage for the next
generation of ASD studies.
Resting state fMRI; Intrinsic functional connectivity; Data sharing; Large-scale networks; Default network; Interhemispheric connectivity; Thalamus
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.
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.
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.
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.
amygdala; anxiety; autism spectrum disorders; functional magnetic resonance; imaging (fMRI); sensory over-responsivity
During adolescence, concerns about peer rejection and acceptance become increasingly common. Adolescents regularly experience peer rejection firsthand and witness these behaviors among their peers. In the current study, neuroimaging techniques were employed to conduct a preliminary investigation of the affective and cognitive processes involved in witnessing peer acceptance and rejection—specifically when these witnessed events occur in the immediate aftermath of a firsthand experience with rejection. During an fMRI scan, twenty-three adolescents underwent a simulated experience of firsthand peer rejection. Then, immediately following this experience they watched as another adolescent was ostensibly first accepted and then rejected. Findings indicated that in the immediate aftermath of being rejected by peers, adolescents displayed neural activity consistent with distress when they saw another peer being accepted, and neural activity consistent with emotion regulation and mentalizing (e.g., perspective-taking) processes when they saw another peer being rejected. Furthermore, individuals displaying a heightened sensitivity to firsthand rejection were more likely to show neural activity consistent with distress when observing a peer being accepted. Findings are discussed in terms of how witnessing others being accepted or rejected relates to adolescents’ interpretations of both firsthand and observed experiences with peers. Additionally, the potential impact that witnessed events might have on the broader perpetuation of bullying at this age is also considered.
peer rejection; peer acceptance; adolescence; functional magnetic resonance imaging; bullying
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.
Imitation plays a central role in the acquisition of culture. People preferentially imitate others who are self-similar, prestigious or successful. Because race can indicate a person's self-similarity or status, race influences whom people imitate. Prior studies of the neural underpinnings of imitation have not considered the effects of race. Here we measured neural activity with fMRI while European American participants imitated meaningless gestures performed by actors of their own race, and two racial outgroups, African American, and Chinese American. Participants also passively observed the actions of these actors and their portraits. Frontal, parietal and occipital areas were differentially activated while participants imitated actors of different races. More activity was present when imitating African Americans than the other racial groups, perhaps reflecting participants' reported lack of experience with and negative attitudes towards this group, or the group's lower perceived social status. This pattern of neural activity was not found when participants passively observed the gestures of the actors or simply looked at their faces. Instead, during face-viewing neural responses were overall greater for own-race individuals, consistent with prior race perception studies not involving imitation. Our findings represent a first step in elucidating neural mechanisms involved in cultural learning, a process that influences almost every aspect of our lives but has thus far received little neuroscientific study.
Race; Imitation; Mirror neuron system; Neuroimaging; Cultural learning
The current research explored the neural mechanisms linking social status to perceptions of the social world. Two fMRI studies provide converging evidence that individuals lower in social status are more likely to engage neural circuitry often involved in ‘mentalizing’ or thinking about others' thoughts and feelings. Study 1 found that college students' perception of their social status in the university community was related to neural activity in the mentalizing network (e.g., DMPFC, MPFC, precuneus/PCC) while encoding social information, with lower social status predicting greater neural activity in this network. Study 2 demonstrated that socioeconomic status, an objective indicator of global standing, predicted adolescents' neural activity during the processing of threatening faces, with individuals lower in social status displaying greater activity in the DMPFC, previously associated with mentalizing, and the amygdala, previously associated with emotion/salience processing. These studies demonstrate that social status is fundamentally and neurocognitively linked to how people process and navigate their social worlds.
Social status; SES; Mentalizing; fMRI
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.
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.
Autism; Self; Ventral mPFC; Anterior insula; Middle cingulate cortex; Development
Adolescence is often described as a period of heightened reactivity to emotions paired with reduced regulatory capacities, a combination suggested to contribute to risk-taking and susceptibility to peer influence during puberty. However, no longitudinal research has definitively linked these behavioral changes to underlying neural development. Here, 38 neurotypical participants underwent two fMRI sessions across the transition from late childhood (10 years) to early adolescence (13 years). Responses to affective facial displays exhibited a combination of general and emotion-specific changes in ventral striatum (VS), ventromedial PFC, amygdala, and temporal pole. Furthermore, VS activity increases correlated with decreases in susceptibility to peer influence and risky behavior. VS and amygdala responses were also significantly more negatively coupled in early adolescence than in late childhood while processing sad and happy versus neutral faces. Together, these results suggest that VS responses to viewing emotions may play a regulatory role that is critical to adolescent interpersonal functioning.
The mirror neuron system (MNS) has been proposed to play an important role in social cognition by providing a neural mechanism by which others’ actions, intentions, and emotions can be understood. Here functional magnetic resonance imaging was used to directly examine the relationship between MNS activity and two distinct indicators of social functioning in typically-developing children (aged 10.1 years±7 months): empathy and interpersonal competence. Reliable activity in pars opercularis, the frontal component of the MNS, was elicited by observation and imitation of emotional expressions. Importantly, activity in this region (as well as in the anterior insula and amygdala) was significantly and positively correlated with established behavioral measures indexing children’s empathic behavior (during both imitation and observation) and interpersonal skills (during imitation only). These findings suggest that simulation mechanisms and the MNS may indeed be relevant to social functioning in everyday life during typical human development.
Self-evaluations undergo significant transformation during early adolescence, developing in parallel with the heightened complexity of teenagers’ social worlds. Intuitive theories of adolescent development, based in part on animal work, suggest that puberty is associated with neural-level changes that facilitate a “social reorientation” (Nelson, Leibenluft, McClure, and Pine, 2005). However, direct tests of this hypothesis using neuroimaging are limited in humans. This longitudinal fMRI study examined neurodevelopmental trajectories associated with puberty, self-evaluations, and the presumed social reorientation during the transition from childhood to adolescence. Participants (N = 27, M age = 10.1 and 13.1 years at timepoints one and two, respectively) engaged in trait evaluations of two targets (the self and a familiar fictional other), across two domains of competence (social and academic). Responses in ventromedial PFC increased with both age and pubertal development during self-evaluations in the social domain, but not in the academic domain. These results suggest changes in social self-evaluations are intimately connected with biology, not just peer contexts, and provide important empirical support for the relationship between neurodevelopment, puberty, and social functioning.
Imitation is an important component of human social learning throughout life. Theoretical models and empirical data from anthropology and psychology suggest that people tend to imitate self-similar individuals, and that such imitation biases increase the adaptive value (e.g., self-relevance) of learned information. It is unclear, however, what neural mechanisms underlie people's tendency to imitate those similar to themselves. We focused on the own-gender imitation bias, a pervasive bias thought to be important for gender identity development. While undergoing fMRI, participants imitated own- and other-gender actors performing novel, meaningless hand signs; as control conditions, they also simply observed such actions and viewed still portraits of the same actors. Only the ventral and dorsal striatum, orbitofrontal cortex and amygdala were more active when imitating own- compared to other-gender individuals. A Bayesian analysis of the BrainMap neuroimaging database demonstrated that the striatal region preferentially activated by own-gender imitation is selectively activated by classical reward tasks in the literature. Taken together, these findings reveal a neurobiological mechanism associated with the own-gender imitation bias and demonstrate a novel role of reward-processing neural structures in social behavior.
imitation; neuroimaging; reward; gender; cultural learning
The objective of this study was to explore the relationships between IQ and cerebral blood flow (CBF) measured by arterial spin labeling (ASL) in children and adolescents. ASL was used to collect perfusion MRI data on 39 healthy participants aged 7 to 17. The Wechsler Abbreviated Intelligence Scale was administered to determine IQ scores. Multivariate regression was applied to reveal correlations between CBF and IQ scores, accounting for age, sex and global mean CBF. Voxel Based Morphometry (VBM) analysis, which measures regional cortical volume, was performed as a control. Regression analyses were further performed on CBF data with adjustment of regional gray matter density (GMD). A positive correlation between CBF and IQ scores was primarily seen in the subgenual/anterior cingulate, right orbitofrontal, superior temporal and right inferior parietal regions. An inverse relationship between CBF and IQ was mainly observed in bilateral posterior temporal regions. After adjusting for regional GMD, the correlations between CBF and IQ in the subgenual/anterior cingulate cortex, right orbitofrontal, superior temporal regions and left insula remained significant. These findings support the Parieto-Frontal Integration Theory of intelligence, especially the role of the subgenual/anterior cingulate cortex in the neural networks associated with intelligence. The present study also demonstrates the unique value of CBF in assessing brain-behavior relationships, in addition to structural morphometric measures.
Arterial Spin Labeling (ASL); Perfusion; Voxel Based Morphometry (VBM); Cognitive Development; Intelligence quotient (IQ)
Very little is known about the neural underpinnings of language learning across the lifespan and how these might be modified by maturational and experiential factors. Building on behavioral research highlighting the importance of early word segmentation (i.e. the detection of word boundaries in continuous speech) for subsequent language learning, here we characterize developmental changes in brain activity as this process occurs online, using data collected in a mixed cross-sectional and longitudinal design. One hundred and fifty-six participants, ranging from age 5 to adulthood, underwent functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) while listening to three novel streams of continuous speech, which contained either strong statistical regularities, strong statistical regularities and speech cues, or weak statistical regularities providing minimal cues to word boundaries. All age groups displayed significant signal increases over time in temporal cortices for the streams with high statistical regularities; however, we observed a significant right-to-left shift in the laterality of these learning-related increases with age. Interestingly, only the 5- to 10-year-old children displayed significant signal increases for the stream with low statistical regularities, suggesting an age-related decrease in sensitivity to more subtle statistical cues. Further, in a sample of 78 10-year-olds, we examined the impact of proficiency in a second language and level of pubertal development on learning-related signal increases, showing that the brain regions involved in language learning are influenced by both experiential and maturational factors.
To examine mirror neuron abnormalities in autism, high-functioning children with autism and matched controls underwent fMRI while imitating and observing emotional expressions. Although both groups performed the tasks equally well, children with autism showed no mirror neuron activity in the inferior frontal gyrus (pars opercularis). Notably, activity in this area was inversely related to symptom severity in the social domain, suggesting that a dysfunctional ‘mirror neuron system’ may underlie the social deficits observed in autism.
Word segmentation, detecting word boundaries in continuous speech, is a critical aspect of language learning. Previous research in infants and adults demonstrated that a stream of speech can be readily segmented based solely on the statistical and speech cues afforded by the input. Using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), the neural substrate of word segmentation was examined on-line as participants listened to three streams of concatenated syllables, containing either statistical regularities alone, statistical regularities and speech cues, or no cues. Despite the participants’ inability to explicitly detect differences between the speech streams, neural activity differed significantly across conditions, with left-lateralized signal increases in temporal cortices observed only when participants listened to streams containing statistical regularities, particularly the stream containing speech cues. In a second fMRI study, designed to verify that word segmentation had implicitly taken place, participants listened to trisyllabic combinations that occurred with different frequencies in the streams of speech they just heard (“words,” 45 times; “partwords,” 15 times; “nonwords,” once). Reliably greater activity in left inferior and middle frontal gyri was observed when comparing words with partwords and, to a lesser extent, when comparing partwords with nonwords. Activity in these regions, taken to index the implicit detection of word boundaries, was positively correlated with participants’ rapid auditory processing skills. These findings provide a neural signature of on-line word segmentation in the mature brain and an initial model with which to study developmental changes in the neural architecture involved in processing speech cues during language learning.
fMRI; language; speech perception; word segmentation; statistical learning; auditory cortex; inferior frontal gyrus
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.
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.
autism; brain development; fMRI; language pragmatics; social cognition