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The Social Brain in Children with Autism


Overview and Implications

From a clinical viewpoint, one of the core diagnostic criteria for autism is deficits in social cognition, such as differences in processing emotion, communication, and perception of social interaction (American Psychiatric Association). Thus, a major section of neuroimaging studies within autism research focuses on examining the neural correlates for these social deficits. 


These neuroimaging studies specifically focus on the activation of the “social brain area,” which includes parts of the brain, such as the superior temporal sulcus, amygdala, and inferior frontal gyrus, that play a major role in social cognition. Previous studies have shown reduced activation in the social brain for people with autism compared to neurotypical individuals, though the regions of the brain that display abnormalities differ depending on what specific social function is being tested (Sato et al., Wang et al.)


The present study investigates the processes of empathy and mentalization in Korean children with and without autism by performing fMRI on subjects as they process pictures of faces displaying happiness, fear, or no emotion. Their results show that children with autism have lower activation in the social brain, specifically in the right hemisphere, which specializes in processing emotion, compared to typically developing children. However, visual areas of the brain showed enhanced activation in children with ASD for happy faces, possibly indicating that although visual analysis plays an important role in social cognition, the ability to process emotions clearly and understand their intent is also critical for successful social interaction. 


By understanding the neural correlates for specific social deficits in people with autism, clinical psychologists are better equipped to understand how autism affects the brain and how to approach treatment. Exploring the neurobiology behind autism may also lead to earlier detection of the disorder and more positive outcomes for children with ASD. 


Critique

Kim et al. provided an accurate and thorough study of the brain activity involved in empathy and mentalization, meticulously including several regions of the social brain and detailing which specific regions were activated in response to different facial expressions. 


However, a limitation of the experiment is the recognition and interpretation of facial expressions. The pictures used in the study were stagnant and depicted western faces, both of which may affect the Korean children’s emotional perception. It is possible that even the neurotypical children were unable to accurately interpret the provided facial expressions, which would impact the results since different parts of the social brain are activated for different emotions.


Future Directions

Future studies may look at fMRI data in conjunction with eye tracking data in order to investigate social cognition. The eye tracking data could reject or support Kim et al.’s theory that visual perception plays a less significant role in social cognition than emotional processing while also providing insight into how children with autism may perceive and learn differently in their social environments. 


References 

American Psychiatric Association. Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, DSM-V. Washington, DC: American Psychiatric Association; 2013.


Sato, W., Toichi, M., Uono, S., & Kochiyama, T. (2012). Impaired social brain network for processing dynamic facial expressions in autism spectrum disorders. BMC Neurosci, 13, 99. doi:10.1186/1471-2202-13-99.


Wang, A.T., Lee, S.S., Sigman, M., & Dapretto, M. (2007). Reading affect in the face and voice: neural correlates of interpreting communicative intent in children and adolescents with autism spectrum disorders. Arch Gen Psychiatry, 64(6), 698-708. doi:10.1001/archpsyc.64.6.698. 


Article Reviewed

Kim, S.Y., Choi, U.S., Park S.Y., Oh, S.H., Yoon, H.W., Koh, Y.J., Im, W.Y., Park, J.I., Song, D.H., Cheon, K.A., & Lee, C.U. (2015). Abnormal Activation of the Social Brain Network in Children with Autism Spectrum Disorder: An fMRI Study. Psychiatry Investig, 12(1), 37-45. doi:10.4306/pi.2015.12.1.37.

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