Neural Mechanisms Underlying Atypical Social Interactions In Autism.
Autism spectrum disorder can negatively impact cognitive, social, and emotional development and affect formation of close, personal relationships. One reason for this is that children with autism spectrum disorder have significant difficulties engaging in and maintaining social interactions. While it is clear that atypical social interaction plays an important role in autism, we still do not understand the neuroscientific bases for these difficulties. Previous theories implicate atypical processing in social-motivational and social-cognitive brain networks; however, these theories have only been tested in neuroimaging contexts divorced from social interaction. For example, children may simply see a picture of a stranger’s face as an attempt to manipulate social approval. These sorts of detached, offline measures may fail to capture the real-world social-interactive challenges faced by individuals with autism, and so the critical question of what neural mechanisms underlie atypical social interaction remains unanswered.
Dr. Elizabeth Redcay and colleagues received a $2.6 million grant from the National Institute of Mental Health to address this question through use of an innovative, interactive approach to examine real-time social interaction while children are undergoing a functional MRI brain scan. Her collaborators on the project are Dr. Luiz Pessoa (also in the Department of Psychology) and Dr. Audrey Thurm (at the National Institutes of Health). Using this interactive approach and analytic tools to examine brain networks, Dr. Redcay and her colleagues will be able to examine how the functional organization of brain networks changes when children engage in a social interaction in real-time. The central hypothesis is that atypical organization of social-motivational and social-cognitive networks during real-time social interactions predict social-interactive difficulties in autism.
Both typically developing children and children with autism spectrum disorder will visit UMD for a brain scan and to complete games and activities in the laboratory. Children will be between 7 and 14 years of age, which is an opportune age to address this question because this period is marked by increased social abilities in typically developing children but plateauing social abilities in autism.
A better understanding of how behavioral difficulties with social interaction map to atypical development of brain circuits using innovative neuroscience techniques will allow for identification of neural markers of risk that can guide diagnostic and intervention strategies for autism and other disorders characterized by atypical social interaction.