Science + Technology

UCLA Study First to Show Autistic Brains Can Be Trained to Recognize Visual and Vocal Cues

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Tounderstand the meaning of a conversation, kids automatically do what adults do —besidesprocessing the meaning of words, they unconsciously "read" the expression on aperson's face and listen to their tone of voice, then integrate thatinformation with the context at hand to discern meaning, be it humor, anger,irony or straightforwardness.

Individualswith autism typically don't do this. They often miss the subtle meaningsconveyed by a person's face and tone of voice, and thus have troubledetermining the communicative intent of others. Neuroimaging studies havebacked this up, showing that individuals with autism spectrum disorders (ASDs)— including autism, pervasive developmental disorder and Asperger's syndrome — showreduced activity in the regions of the brain that respond to such cues.

Butwhat if those brain regions could be trained to respond appropriately? In areport in the current issue of the journal Archives of General Psychiatry andcurrently online, UCLA researchers did just that. Providing ASD children withexplicit instructions to pay more attention to facial expressions and tone ofvoice elicited an increased response in the medial prefrontal cortex, part ofthe brain's network for understanding the intentions of others.

"That'ssignificant. The fact that you can 'normalize' activity in this region in theASD group by directing their attention to these important social cues clearlyindicates there's nothing intrinsically wrong with this region in the autisticbrain," said Mirella Dapretto, associate professor of psychiatry andbiobehavioral sciences at the Semel Institute for Neuroscience and HumanBehavior at UCLA and a member of the UCLA Ahmanson-Lovelace Brain MappingCenter. Dapretto co-authored the study with her former graduate student TingWang, who is now a postdoctoral fellow at Mount Sinai School of Medicine.

"Thisis a very positive thing," Dapretto said, "because these findings have implicationsfor future interventions — they suggest that you could train the autistic brainto make use of the information conveyed by the human face and voice tosuccessfully navigate social interactions."

Autismis a complex neurobiological disorder of development that affects one of every150 children, impairing communication and social skills. ASDs encompass a broadspectrum of disorders that range from mild to severe.

Theauthors had two goals in mind with their study. One was to examine the neuralcircuitry in the brain that underlies the problems ASD children face ininterpreting communicative intent. The other was to determine whether explicitinstructions to pay attention to facial expressions and tone of voice wouldelicit more normal patterns of brain activity in these children.

Whileundergoing functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), 18 ASD boys betweenthe ages of 7 and 17, as well as a control group of 18 typically developing(TD) boys, viewed cartoon drawings of children in conversational settings whilelistening to short vignettes that ended with a potentially ironic remark.Researchers found that, compared with the TD control group, the ASD children hadreduced activity in two areas of the brain — the medial prefrontal cortex andright superior temporal gyrus. But when the researchers gave both groupsexplicit instructions to pay attention to the speaker's facial expression andtone of voice, only the ASD children showed a significant increase in activityin the medial prefrontal cortex.

"Thetypically developing kids recognized and interpreted these cues automaticallywhen trying to infer if a speaker's remark was sincere or sarcastic, so theirbrains were already responding appropriately," said Dapretto. "But not so withthe ASD kids, who did not show activity in this area when specific instructionsweren't provided. This is the first study to show that you can normalizeactivity in a key region of the so-called 'social brain' in individuals withautism by simply directing their attention to these important social cues."

Otherauthors of the study included Susan S. Lee and Marian Sigman. The research wasfunded by the National Alliance for Autism Research, the Cure Autism NowFoundation, the UC Davis M.I.N.D. Institute, and grants from the NationalInstitute of Child Health and Human Development and the National Institute onDeafness and Other Communication Disorders.

TheSemel Institute for Neuroscience andHuman Behavior at UCLA is an interdisciplinary research and educationinstitute devoted to the understanding of complex human behavior, including thegenetic, biological, behavioral and sociocultural underpinnings of normalbehavior and the causes and consequences of neuropsychiatric disorders. Inaddition to conducting fundamental research, the institute faculty seeks todevelop effective treatments for neurological and psychiatric disorders,improve access to mental health services and shape national health policyregarding neuropsychiatric disorders.

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