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Written Praise Activates Mesolimbic Reward Circuitry in Autism Spectrum Disorders

Thursday, 2 May 2013: 09:00-13:00
Banquet Hall (Kursaal Centre)
C. Damiano1, E. Hanna2, K. Dunlap3, D. Cockrell4, J. Aloi4, S. Miller2, J. W. Bodfish5 and G. S. Dichter6, (1)Department of Psychology, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Chapel Hill, NC, (2)Carolina Institute for Developmental Disabilities, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Carrboro, NC, (3)Brain Imaging and Analysis Center (BIAC), Duke University, Durham, NC, (4)University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Chapel Hill, NC, (5)Department of Hearing and Speech Sciences, Vanderbilt University, Nashville, TN, (6)Psychiatry and Psychology, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, NC
Background: Research addressing reward processing in autism has consistently found impaired motivation for social rewards. To further refine the social motivation theory of autism, the present study directly compared reward circuitry responses to different types of social rewards in individuals with autism spectrum disorders (ASDs).

Objectives: The primary aim of this study was to examine reward circuitry responses to different types of social rewards, in individuals with and without ASD.

Methods: This study included 16 adults with confirmed diagnoses of ASD and 15 age- and IQ-matched adults without ASD. Brain activation during the anticipation and receipt of rewards was assessed using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) in a 3T MRI scanner. In the scanner, participants completed a modified version of an incentive delay task which involved four different reward types: 1) monetary rewards that participants won for themselves, 2) monetary rewards won for another, anonymous individual, 3) the presentation of smiling face images, and 4) the presentation of different statements of written praise (e.g., “You got it! Great Job!”).

Results: Analyses directly comparing anticipatory responses to different reward types revealed  that individuals with ASD did not show relatively greater activation in any striatal regions to any reward types. However, while the ASD group showed relatively decreased activation in striatal reward regions (i.e., nucleus accumbens, caudate, and putamen) during the anticipation of money won for themselves, money won for other individuals, and smiling faces, p < .005, there were no group differences in striatal activation to written praise.  Further, analyses within the ASD group alone revealed that the written praise condition was associated with enhanced striatal activation (including bilateral nucleus accumbens activation) relative to monetary rewards for oneself, monetary rewards for another individual, and presentation of a smiling face, p < .005.  Further analyses will consider responses during the outcome phase of the task and relations between neural activation and symptom presentation within the ASD group.

Conclusions: Individuals with ASD were found to show reduced striatal activation during the anticipation of several reward types, including monetary rewards for themselves and for others as well as the presentation of smiling faces. However,  no group differences were found during the anticipation of written praise. These preliminary findings suggest that reward motivation for praise may be relatively spared in ASD. This result raises the possibility that behavioral interventions in ASD could be adapted to capitalize on this relative area of strength to more effectively motivate individuals with ASD in didactic contexts and in social interactions.

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