Title: Self Responses along Cingulate Cortex Reveal Quantitative Neural Phenotype for High-Functioning Autism
Authors: Pearl H. Chiu, M. Amin Kayali, Kenneth T. Kishida, Damon Tomlin, Laura G. Klinger, Mark R. Klinger and P. Read Montague
Source: Neuron 57, 463–473, February 7, 2008
I first heard about this article at the Autism Vox, which led to an interesting discussion on the difficulty in applying findings from basic science into the creation of diagnostic tools. This was a very interesting piece, but as I mentioned on the Autism Vox discussion, I think we are far from the creation of an FMRI test of autism (see the Autism Vox discussion). In summary, the researchers examined 16 adolescents with high functioning autism and 20 typically developing adolescents in their responses to a computer game called the Multi-round Trust Game. In this game the children received computer money (points) from another player in the form of an investment. During the transaction, the investment increased, so the receiving child obtained more than what the “investor” actually sent. Then the receiving child must decide how much of what he received should be returned to the investor. The key finding was that both groups of kids (Children with autism and typically developing) looked the same, in regards to their brain activation as seen on an fMRI, when the “Other” person was making a decision. The authors refer to this as the “Other Response”. However, when the children were making their own responses (called “Self Response”) the children with Autism lack a particular activation in the Cingulate Cortex (located deep in the center of the brain and usually activated during some social interactions including TofM tasks). This pattern of response was similar to the pattern presented by typically developing kids when playing against a computer instead of an actual person. The conclusion from the authors is that these children with autism may be “impaired in the capacity to represent the social intend of their OWN behavior” while understanding the actions of other (but not necessarily the intentions of others).
Commentary: Here is where the logic gets fussy. Since the two groups of children had a similar response patterns to the “Other” response, the authors argued that such “other” response must refer to a representation of the simple actions of others, but not the “intentions” of others. So the lack of cingulate cortex activation during “self” responses are interpreted as a diminished capacity to understand you own social “intentions” (or I interpret this that as “consequences”) and this is used to explain why children with autism have difficulty on theory of mind tasks. The authors argued that if you can’t represent your own social intentions, it will be difficult to represent the social intentions of others. Now, the problem is that in this game there was no difference between the two groups of kids when the “Other” was responding. Why? If children with autism have difficulty representing the social intentions of others, you would expected to see a difference between these two groups, unless you assume that 1) the typically developing kids also had problems representing the social intentions of others OR 2) during this game there was no need to represent the social intentions of others. In conclusion, what this study clearly shows is reduced Cingulate Cortex activation during “self” responses, suggesting that children with autism have a different brain activation pattern when performing actions that have social intentions, or consequences on someone else. Here is a review from MIT.
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