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1.  Reward Processing in Autism 
The social motivation hypothesis of autism posits that infants with autism do not experience social stimuli as rewarding, thereby leading to a cascade of potentially negative consequences for later development. While possible downstream effects of this hypothesis such as altered face and voice processing have been examined, there has not been a direct investigation of social reward processing in autism. Here we use functional magnetic resonance imaging to examine social and monetary rewarded implicit learning in children with and without autism spectrum disorders (ASD). Sixteen males with ASD and sixteen age- and IQ-matched typically developing (TD) males were scanned while performing two versions of a rewarded implicit learning task. In addition to examining responses to reward, we investigated the neural circuitry supporting rewarded learning and the relationship between these factors and social development. We found diminished neural responses to both social and monetary rewards in ASD, with a pronounced reduction in response to social rewards (SR). Children with ASD also demonstrated a further deficit in frontostriatal response during social, but not monetary, rewarded learning. Moreover, we show a relationship between ventral striatum activity and social reciprocity in TD children. Together, these data support the hypothesis that children with ASD have diminished neural responses to SR, and that this deficit relates to social learning impairments.
doi:10.1002/aur.122
PMCID: PMC3076289  PMID: 20437601
functional MRI (fMRI); social cognition; reward; learning
2.  Altered Functional Connectivity in Frontal Lobe Circuits Is Associated with Variation in the Autism Risk Gene CNTNAP2 
Science translational medicine  2010;2(56):56ra80.
Genetic studies are rapidly identifying variants that shape risk for disorders of human cognition, but the question of how such variants predispose to neuropsychiatric disease remains. Noninvasive human brain imaging allows assessment of the brain in vivo, and the combination of genetics and imaging phenotypes remains one of the only ways to explore functional genotype-phenotype associations in human brain. Common variants in contactin-associated protein-like 2 (CNTNAP2), a neurexin superfamily member, have been associated with several allied neurodevelopmental disorders, including autism and specific language impairment, and CNTNAP2 is highly expressed in frontal lobe circuits in the developing human brain. Using functional neuroimaging, we have demonstrated a relationship between frontal lobar connectivity and common genetic variants in CNTNAP2. These data provide a mechanistic link between specific genetic risk for neurodevelopmental disorders and empirical data implicating dysfunction of long-range connections within the frontal lobe in autism. The convergence between genetic findings and cognitive-behavioral models of autism provides evidence that genetic variation at CNTNAP2 predisposes to diseases such asautism in part through modulation of frontal lobe connectivity.
doi:10.1126/scitranslmed.3001344
PMCID: PMC3065863  PMID: 21048216

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