Diminished single-stimulus response in vmPFC to favorite people in children diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder


From an early age, individuals with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) spend less time engaged in social interaction compared to typically developing peers (TD). One reason behind this behavior may be that the brains of children diagnosed with ASD do not attribute enough value to potential social exchanges as compared to the brains of typically developing children; thus, potential social exchanges are avoided because other environmental stimuli are more highly valued by default. Neurobiological investigations into the mechanisms underlying value-based decision-making has shown that the ventral medial prefrontal cortex (vmPFC) is critical for encoding the expected outcome value of different actions corresponding to distinct environmental cues. Here, we tested the hypothesis that the responsiveness of the vmPFC in children diagnosed with ASD (compared to TD controls) is diminished for visual cues that represent highly valued social interaction. Using a passive picture viewing task and functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) we measured the response of an a priori defined region of interest in the vmPFC in children diagnosed with ASD and an age-matched TD cohort. We show that the average response of the vmPFC is significantly diminished in the ASD group. Further, we demonstrate that a single-stimulus and less than 30 s of fMRI data are sufficient to differentiate the ASD and TD cohorts. These findings are consistent with the hypothesis that the brains of children with ASD do not encode the value of social exchange in the same manner as TD children. The latter finding suggests the possibility of utilizing single-stimulus fMRI as a potential biologically based diagnostic tool to augment traditional clinical approaches.



Autism spectrum disorders, Functional MRI, Reward, Ventromedial prefrontal cortex, Favorite face, Favorite object, Value-based decision making