Controlling attention to gaze and arrows in childhood: an fMRI study of typical development and Autism Spectrum Disorders

Authors


Chandan J. Vaidya, Department of Psychology, 306 White-Gravenor, 37th and 0 Streets, NW, Georgetown University, Washington, DC 20057, USA; e-mail: cjv2@georgetown.edu

Abstract

Functional magnetic resonance imaging was used to examine functional anatomy of attention to social (eye gaze) and nonsocial (arrow) communicative stimuli in late childhood and in a disorder defined by atypical processing of social stimuli, Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD). Children responded to a target word (‘LEFT’/‘RIGHT’) in the context of a distracting arrow or averted gaze pointing in a direction that was congruent, incongruent, or neutral (bar without arrowheads, central gaze) relative to the target word. Despite being irrelevant to the target task, both arrow and averted gaze facilitated responses (Congruent vs. Neutral trials) to the same extent in the two groups and led to interference (Incongruent vs. Congruent trials), which was greater from arrows in ASD than control children. In the brain, interaction between group and distracter-domain was observed in frontal-temporal regions during facilitation and frontal-striatal regions during interference. During facilitation, regions associated with attention to gaze in control children (left superior temporal sulcus, premotor) were associated with attention to arrows in ASD children; gaze was associated with medial temporal involvement in ASD children. During interference, regions associated with arrows in control children (anterior cingulate, right caudate) were activated in response to gaze in ASD children; further, left dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, a region not observed in control children, was activated during gaze-interference in ASD children. Thus, functional anatomy was atypical in ASD children during spontaneous processing of social and nonsocial communicative cues.

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