Functional neuroimaging of the interaction between social and executive neural circuitry in individuals with high-functioning autism Public Deposited

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  • March 22, 2019
  • Carpenter, Kimberly L. H.
    • Affiliation: School of Medicine, UNC Neuroscience Center, Neuroscience Curriculum
  • Autism has been associated with deficits in both social cognition and aspects of executive processing. While previous studies have elegantly demonstrated deificts in each of these processes in isolation, little is known about the interaction between these cognitive domains. The goal of this research was twofold: aim one was to utilize functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) technology to probe how the neurotypical brain resolves competition between task-irrelevant social-cues and goal-directed information during an executive task in which the social context is irrelevant to the executive component. Aim two was to utilize the same fMRI task to probe the interaction between the social-cue and executive networks in a group of individuals with high-functioning autism. Elucidating the neural underpinnings of how individuals with autism differentially resolve competition between social-cues and executive attention may provide insight into the neural circuitry underlying the increased difficulty that individuals with autism often exhibit when performing executive tasks administered in a social context and more broadly expands our understanding of the social cognitive deficits in autism. Results from this work suggest that the presence of task-irrelevant social cues, namely pictures of eyes, increased attention to the target stimulus in both neurotypical controls and individuals with autism. Specifically, behavioral results suggest that in neurotypical participants the social cue facilitated target detection and promoted discrimination between target and non-target events. In contrast, while social cues behaviorally facilitated target detection in individuals with autism, the social information simultaneously impaired their ability to discriminate between target and non-target events. The enhanced discrimination of target and non-target events in neurotypical controls is likely due to the engagement of frontal cognitive control and selective attention circuitry, which modulates attention to and enhances processing of task-relevant information while filtering distracting irrelevant sensory input. Conversely, dysregulation of fronto-limbic circuits in individuals with autism was associated with an inability to filter interference by the task-irrelevant social stimuli, thus resulting in reduced executive control processes and decreased ability to discriminate between stimuli paired with task-irrelevant eyes.
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  • ... in partial fulfillment of the requirements for the degree of Doctor of Philosophy in the Curriculum in Neurobiology.
  • Belger, Aysenil

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