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      Underconnectivity between voice-selective cortex and reward circuitry in children with autism

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          Abstract

          Individuals with autism spectrum disorders (ASDs) often show insensitivity to the human voice, a deficit that is thought to play a key role in communication deficits in this population. The social motivation theory of ASD predicts that impaired function of reward and emotional systems impedes children with ASD from actively engaging with speech. Here we explore this theory by investigating distributed brain systems underlying human voice perception in children with ASD. Using resting-state functional MRI data acquired from 20 children with ASD and 19 age- and intelligence quotient-matched typically developing children, we examined intrinsic functional connectivity of voice-selective bilateral posterior superior temporal sulcus (pSTS). Children with ASD showed a striking pattern of underconnectivity between left-hemisphere pSTS and distributed nodes of the dopaminergic reward pathway, including bilateral ventral tegmental areas and nucleus accumbens, left-hemisphere insula, orbitofrontal cortex, and ventromedial prefrontal cortex. Children with ASD also showed underconnectivity between right-hemisphere pSTS, a region known for processing speech prosody, and the orbitofrontal cortex and amygdala, brain regions critical for emotion-related associative learning. The degree of underconnectivity between voice-selective cortex and reward pathways predicted symptom severity for communication deficits in children with ASD. Our results suggest that weak connectivity of voice-selective cortex and brain structures involved in reward and emotion may impair the ability of children with ASD to experience speech as a pleasurable stimulus, thereby impacting language and social skill development in this population. Our study provides support for the social motivation theory of ASD.

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          Most cited references 36

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          Meta-analyzing left hemisphere language areas: phonology, semantics, and sentence processing.

          The advent of functional neuroimaging has allowed tremendous advances in our understanding of brain-language relationships, in addition to generating substantial empirical data on this subject in the form of thousands of activation peak coordinates reported in a decade of language studies. We performed a large-scale meta-analysis of this literature, aimed at defining the composition of the phonological, semantic, and sentence processing networks in the frontal, temporal, and inferior parietal regions of the left cerebral hemisphere. For each of these language components, activation peaks issued from relevant component-specific contrasts were submitted to a spatial clustering algorithm, which gathered activation peaks on the basis of their relative distance in the MNI space. From a sample of 730 activation peaks extracted from 129 scientific reports selected among 260, we isolated 30 activation clusters, defining the functional fields constituting three distributed networks of frontal and temporal areas and revealing the functional organization of the left hemisphere for language. The functional role of each activation cluster is discussed based on the nature of the tasks in which it was involved. This meta-analysis sheds light on several contemporary issues, notably on the fine-scale functional architecture of the inferior frontal gyrus for phonological and semantic processing, the evidence for an elementary audio-motor loop involved in both comprehension and production of syllables including the primary auditory areas and the motor mouth area, evidence of areas of overlap between phonological and semantic processing, in particular at the location of the selective human voice area that was the seat of partial overlap of the three language components, the evidence of a cortical area in the pars opercularis of the inferior frontal gyrus dedicated to syntactic processing and in the posterior part of the superior temporal gyrus a region selectively activated by sentence and text processing, and the hypothesis that different working memory perception-actions loops are identifiable for the different language components. These results argue for large-scale architecture networks rather than modular organization of language in the left hemisphere.
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            Cortical activation and synchronization during sentence comprehension in high-functioning autism: evidence of underconnectivity.

            The brain activation of a group of high-functioning autistic participants was measured using functional MRI during sentence comprehension and the results compared with those of a Verbal IQ-matched control group. The groups differed in the distribution of activation in two of the key language areas. The autism group produced reliably more activation than the control group in Wernicke's (left laterosuperior temporal) area and reliably less activation than the control group in Broca's (left inferior frontal gyrus) area. Furthermore, the functional connectivity, i.e. the degree of synchronization or correlation of the time series of the activation, between the various participating cortical areas was consistently lower for the autistic than the control participants. These findings suggest that the neural basis of disordered language in autism entails a lower degree of information integration and synchronization across the large-scale cortical network for language processing. The article presents a theoretical account of the findings, related to neurobiological foundations of underconnectivity in autism.
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              Sex differences in the brain: implications for explaining autism.

              Empathizing is the capacity to predict and to respond to the behavior of agents (usually people) by inferring their mental states and responding to these with an appropriate emotion. Systemizing is the capacity to predict and to respond to the behavior of nonagentive deterministic systems by analyzing input-operation-output relations and inferring the rules that govern such systems. At a population level, females are stronger empathizers and males are stronger systemizers. The "extreme male brain" theory posits that autism represents an extreme of the male pattern (impaired empathizing and enhanced systemizing). Here we suggest that specific aspects of autistic neuroanatomy may also be extremes of typical male neuroanatomy.
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                Author and article information

                Journal
                Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences
                Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences
                Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences
                0027-8424
                1091-6490
                July 16 2013
                July 16 2013
                June 17 2013
                July 16 2013
                : 110
                : 29
                : 12060-12065
                Article
                10.1073/pnas.1302982110
                3718181
                23776244
                © 2013
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