International Meeting for Autism Research: Intervention-related Changes in Brain Activation in Adolescents with Autism

Intervention-related Changes in Brain Activation in Adolescents with Autism

Thursday, May 12, 2011
Elizabeth Ballroom E-F and Lirenta Foyer Level 2 (Manchester Grand Hyatt)
11:00 AM
S. E. Christ1, J. P. Stichter1, A. J. Moffitt2, K. E. Bodner3 and K. V. O'Connor2, (1)University of Missouri, Columbia, MO, United States, (2)University of Missouri, columbia, MO, (3)University of Missouri, Columbia

Social skill deficits, including difficulties with social relationships and interactions, manifest in individuals with Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD) as key signifiers of the disorder, with varying degrees of severity across the spectrum. From a theoretical standpoint, researchers have hypothesized that deficits in executive function (i.e., those higher-order cognitive processes that allow for the flexible modification of thought and behavior in response to changing cognitive or environmental contexts) may contribute to such social difficulties.  If this is true, then it follows that changes in executive function and its neural substrates could accompany intervention-related improvements in social skills.


To utilize functional magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) technology to evaluate the impact of social skills intervention on brain activation and performance on a socially-relevant executive function task. 


Brain imaging data is being collected from adolescents (current n = 6, mean age = 13.7 yrs) immediately before participating in a short-term social skills intervention program and then again shortly after completion of the intervention.  The intervention of interest is the Social Competence Intervention (SCI) program (Stichter et al., 2010, in press).  The SCI program is based on cognitive behavioral principles and has been shown to be effective at improving social skills in adolescents with high functioning autism and Aspergers syndrome. It is delivered over the course of 10-12 weeks (45-60 minutes twice per week; total = 20 hours of intervention).  Functional MRI techniques (Siemens 3T Trio Scanner) are being used to assess neural activity during performance of an n-back working memory task using novel face stimuli. In the 2-back “working memory” condition of the task, participants are shown a series of faces one at a time and are instructed to respond when the current face is the same as the face that appeared two stimuli before (i.e., 2-back condition).


Preliminary analysis revealed intervention-related changes in neural activation in a number of working memory-related brain regions including right inferior frontal gyrus, left hippocampal gyrus, and left intraparietal sulcus (p < .01 FDR corrected in all instances). Additional data collection remains ongoing.


The present findings provide preliminary support for the hypothesis that participation in the social skills intervention program is accompanied by changes in underlying neurocognitive processes such as executive control.  Additional research with a larger sample size and inclusion of a non-intervention comparison group is still needed.

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