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1.  Reading Affect in the Face and Voice 
Archives of general psychiatry  2007;64(6):698-708.
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.
PMCID: PMC3713233  PMID: 17548751
2.  Neural basis of irony comprehension in children with autism: the role of prosody and context 
Brain : a journal of neurology  2006;129(0 4):932-943.
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.
PMCID: PMC3713234  PMID: 16481375
autism; brain development; fMRI; language pragmatics; social cognition
3.  No Neural Evidence of Statistical Learning During Exposure to Artificial Languages in Children with Autism Spectrum Disorders 
Biological psychiatry  2010;68(4):345-351.
Language delay is a hallmark feature of autism spectrum disorders (ASD). The identification of word boundaries in continuous speech is a critical first step in language acquisition that can be accomplished via statistical learning and reliance on speech cues. Importantly, early word segmentation skills have been shown to predict later language development in typically developing (TD) children.
Here we investigated the neural correlates of online word segmentation in children with and without ASD with a well-established behavioral paradigm previously validated for functional magnetic resonance imaging. Eighteen high-functioning boys with ASD and 18 age- and IQ-matched TD boys underwent functional magnetic resonance imaging while listening to two artificial languages (containing statistical or statistical + prosodic cues to word boundaries) and a random speech stream.
Consistent with prior findings, in TD control subjects, activity in fronto-temporal-parietal networks decreased as the number of cues to word boundaries increased. The ASD children, however, did not show this facilitatory effect. Furthermore, statistical contrasts modeling changes in activity over time identified significant learning-related signal increases for both artificial languages in basal ganglia and left temporo-parietal cortex only in TD children. Finally, the level of communicative impairment in ASD children was inversely correlated with signal increases in these same regions during exposure to the artificial languages.
This is the first study to demonstrate significant abnormalities in the neural architecture subserving language-related learning in ASD children and to link the communicative impairments observed in this population to decreased sensitivity to the statistical and speech cues available in the language input.
PMCID: PMC3229830  PMID: 20303070
Autism; implicit learning; language; neuroimaging; speech perception
4.  Developmental changes in the neural basis of interpreting communicative intent 
Understanding the intended meaning of a remark beyond what is explicitly stated is an integral part of successful social interactions. Here, we examined the neural circuitry underlying the interpretation of communicative intent in children and adults using irony comprehension as a test case. Participants viewed cartoon drawings while listening to short scenarios ending with a potentially ironic remark and were asked to decide whether the speaker was being sincere or ironic. In both children and adults, instructions to attend to the cues provided by the speaker's facial expression or tone of voice modulated the activity in visual and language cortices, respectively. Overall, children engaged the medial prefrontal cortex and left inferior frontal gyrus more strongly than adults, whereas adults recruited the fusiform gyrus, extrastriate areas and the amygdala more strongly than children. Greater involvement of prefrontal regions in children may subserve the integration of multiple cues to reconcile the discrepancy between the literal and intended meaning of an ironic remark. This developmental shift from a reliance on frontal regions to posterior occipitotemporal regions may reflect the automatization of basic reasoning about mental states. This study is the first to examine developmental changes in the neural circuitry underlying natural language pragmatics.
PMCID: PMC2555444  PMID: 18985123
development; functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI); irony; language; theory of mind

Results 1-4 (4)