Project III:  Systems Connectivity and Brain Activation: Imaging Studies of Language and Perception


fMRI Study

Background Information

Several recent neuroimaging studies have provided evidence of lower coordination among brain areas in autism. This lower connectivity suggests that communication between certain cortical areas is less effective, influencing how the components of thinking are coordinated.
The underconnectivity theory enriches Dr. Minshew’s previous theory with the new findings from fMRI, linking the information processing abnormalities to the brain connectivity itself. Research will allow us to characterize brain function in individuals with autism more extensively than has previously been possible. This will further develop the theory of underconnectivity in autism, providing greater understanding of its origins and nature, leading to better diagnosis and treatment abilities.

What We Want To Learn

We are investigating the nature of cognitive and social difficulties associated with autism such as reasoning, language comprehension and communication, social understanding, and the distribution of mental resources in complex situations. We are also interested in learning how the various brain areas communicate and coordinate while performing tasks. This particularly affects the synchronization or timing of activation (connectivity) between frontal brain areas and more posterior brain areas. Our studies will help us to further understand the neural disorder underlying autism.

How We Do This

Participants will complete various tasks while in an fMRI machine, which allows researchers to see how the subject’s brain is working during a given task. Prior to the actual fMRI, the subject will participate in a simulation fMRI.   This simulation helps the participant feel comfortable during the actual fMRI with the machine sounds and remaining still. During the fMRI, the participant will be asked to complete computer tasks using computer mice.
The tasks consist of visual input (words, pictures) and/or auditory input (spoken words). Participants view a problem on the screen that they must solve, such as deciding if a figure is possible or impossible to construct in three dimensions. To investigate language comprehension, the subject may be asked to make inferences regarding a character’s motivations in stories. Social understanding is also studied by asking participants to detect trustworthiness by looking at a person’s f
. To explore how people distribute their mental resources in a complex situation, subjects might be asked to perform two tasks simultaneously.

Preliminary findings

Our findings show that brain regions in high-functioning individuals with autism do not communicate with each other as effectively as those without autism, especially when they perform complex tasks such as spatial reasoning and language comprehension. The results on language processing have also shown that individuals with high-functioning autism, when compared to those without autism, are more likely to rely on brain regions that process visualization, rather than communication. That means individuals with autism “think in pictures”. By researching the nature of brain activation and brain area coordination, we anticipate that cognitive behavioral therapy may be created to develop better connections between brain areas. In general, studies expect to produce an understanding of autism that will provide new insights for therapy and for facilitating daily functioning.


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