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1.  Social status modulates neural activity in the mentalizing network 
NeuroImage  2012;60(3):1771-1777.
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.
PMCID: PMC3909703  PMID: 22289808
Social status; SES; Mentalizing; fMRI
2.  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.
PMCID: PMC3909704  PMID: 24497750
3.  Own-gender imitation activates the brain's reward circuitry 
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.
PMCID: PMC3475355  PMID: 22383803
imitation; neuroimaging; reward; gender; cultural learning
4.  Infants’ Pre-Empathic Behaviors are Associated with Language Skills 
Infant behavior & development  2012;35(3):561-569.
Infants’ responses to other people’s distress reflect efforts to make sense of affective information about another person and apply it to oneself. This study sought to determine whether 12-month olds’ responses to another person’s display of negative affect reflect characteristics that support social learning and predict social functioning and language skills at 36 months. Measures of infants’ responsiveness include congruent changes in affect and looking time to the person in distress. Attention to the examiner displaying positive affect, analyzed as a control condition, was not related to social functioning or language skills at 36 months. Neither attention nor affective response to the examiner’s distress at 12 months was related to social functioning at 36 months. However, longer time spent looking at the examiner feigning distress predicted higher language scores. Moreover, infants who demonstrated a congruent affective response to distress had higher receptive language scores at 36 months than children who did not respond affectively. Importantly, these relations were not mediated by maternal education, household income, or 12-month verbal skills. These findings are consistent with the notion that adaptation to changes in a social partner’s affective state supports an infants’ ability to glean useful information from interactions with more experienced social partners. Infants’ sensitivity to affective signals may thus be related to the ability to interpret other people’s behavior and to achieve interpersonal understanding through language.
PMCID: PMC3428260  PMID: 22728336
Empathy; Infancy; Social Interaction; Language Development; Social Development
5.  Facing puberty: associations between pubertal development and neural responses to affective facial displays 
Adolescence is marked by profound psychosocial and physiological changes. Although investigations into the interactions between these forces have begun to shed light on the neural correlates of affective processing during the transition to adolescence, relatively little is known about the relationship between pubertal development and emotion perception at the neural level. In the current longitudinal study, 45 neurotypical participants were shown affective facial displays while undergoing fMRI, at ages 10 and 13. Neural responses to emotional expressions at both time points were then correlated with a self-report measure of pubertal development, revealing positive associations with activity in amygdala, thalamus and visual cortical areas at age 10 that increased in magnitude and extent by age 13. At the latter time point, pubertal development was additionally correlated with enhanced responses to faces in temporal pole, ventrolateral prefrontal cortex (PFC) and dorsomedial PFC. Longitudinal comparisons revealed that the relationships between pubertal development and activity in the amygdala, hippocampus and temporal pole were significantly stronger during early adolescence than late childhood. These results suggest that pubertal development per se is linked to neural processing of socioemotional stimuli, particularly with respect to the integration of complex perceptual input and higher order cortical processing of affective content.
PMCID: PMC3252633  PMID: 22228752
adolescence; puberty; emotion; fMRI; amygdala; longitudinal
6.  Altered integration of speech and gesture in children with autism spectrum disorders 
Brain and Behavior  2012;2(5):606-619.
The presence of gesture during speech has been shown to impact perception, comprehension, learning, and memory in normal adults and typically developing children. In neurotypical individuals, the impact of viewing co-speech gestures representing an object and/or action (i.e., iconic gesture) or speech rhythm (i.e., beat gesture) has also been observed at the neural level. Yet, despite growing evidence of delayed gesture development in children with autism spectrum disorders (ASD), few studies have examined how the brain processes multimodal communicative cues occurring during everyday communication in individuals with ASD. Here, we used a previously validated functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) paradigm to examine the neural processing of co-speech beat gesture in children with ASD and matched controls. Consistent with prior observations in adults, typically developing children showed increased responses in right superior temporal gyrus and sulcus while listening to speech accompanied by beat gesture. Children with ASD, however, exhibited no significant modulatory effects in secondary auditory cortices for the presence of co-speech beat gesture. Rather, relative to their typically developing counterparts, children with ASD showed significantly greater activity in visual cortex while listening to speech accompanied by beat gesture. Importantly, the severity of their socio-communicative impairments correlated with activity in this region, such that the more impaired children demonstrated the greatest activity in visual areas while viewing co-speech beat gesture. These findings suggest that although the typically developing brain recognizes beat gesture as communicative and successfully integrates it with co-occurring speech, information from multiple sensory modalities is not effectively integrated during social communication in the autistic brain.
PMCID: PMC3489813  PMID: 23139906
Autism spectrum disorders; fMRI; gesture; language; superior temporal gyrus
7.  Abnormal social reward processing in autism as indexed by pupillary responses to happy faces 
Individuals with Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD) typically show impaired eye contact during social interactions. From a young age, they look less at faces than typically developing (TD) children and tend to avoid direct gaze. However, the reason for this behavior remains controversial; ASD children might avoid eye contact because they perceive the eyes as aversive or because they do not find social engagement through mutual gaze rewarding.
We monitored pupillary diameter as a measure of autonomic response in children with ASD (n = 20, mean age = 12.4) and TD controls (n = 18, mean age = 13.7) while they looked at faces displaying different emotions. Each face displayed happy, fearful, angry or neutral emotions with the gaze either directed to or averted from the subjects.
Overall, children with ASD and TD controls showed similar pupillary responses; however, they differed significantly in their sensitivity to gaze direction for happy faces. Specifically, pupillary diameter increased among TD children when viewing happy faces with direct gaze as compared to those with averted gaze, whereas children with ASD did not show such sensitivity to gaze direction. We found no group differences in fixation that could explain the differential pupillary responses. There was no effect of gaze direction on pupil diameter for negative affect or neutral faces among either the TD or ASD group.
We interpret the increased pupillary diameter to happy faces with direct gaze in TD children to reflect the intrinsic reward value of a smiling face looking directly at an individual. The lack of this effect in children with ASD is consistent with the hypothesis that individuals with ASD may have reduced sensitivity to the reward value of social stimuli.
PMCID: PMC3461481  PMID: 22958650
Autism; Pupillary response; Reward processing

Results 1-7 (7)