Editorial: Cognitive science approach to developmental disorders: From “discrete diagnostic” to “dimensional”


Correspondence concerning this article should be sent to: Harumitsu Murohashi, Graduate School of Education, Hokkaido University, Kita-ku, Sapporo 060-0811, Japan. (E-mail: muroh@edu.hokudai.ac.jp)

What are developmental disorders?

A developmental disorder is a concept that is applied to children who have a biological basis for behavioral and cognitive problems with their development. Such disorders are considered to have neurodevelopmental origins. A neurodevelopmental disorder is an umbrella term that can include, to varying degrees, diverse disease classifications (Coe, Girirajan, & Eichler, 2012).

Typically, the umbrella of developmental disorders includes autism spectrum disorders (ASD), attention deficit and hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), and learning disorders (the core disorder is thought to be developmental dyslexia (DD)). ASDs are a group of developmental disorders that are characterized by impairments in social interaction and communication and by restricted, repetitive, and stereotyped patterns of behavior (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2012). ADHD is characterized by developmentally inappropriate levels of inattention, hyperactivity, and impulsivity, which cause impairment in functioning (American Psychiatric Association, 2000). DD is a reading disorder in children and adults that can be identified in part by difficulties with single-word reading and spelling (Fletcher, 2009).

Cognitive science approach

Cognitive science has focused on various psychological domains such as perception, memory, language, thinking, problem-solving, particularly attention, imagery, working memory, executive function, and other topics. Few cognitive scientists have begun to study impairments in these functions, although considerable efforts have been made to clarify the mechanisms of disorders, such as autism. People with ASD have difficulties with social interaction and communication. For example, the Theory of Mind has been proposed as a cognitive model for explaining the difficulties with ASD (Baron-Cohen, Leslie, & Frith, 1985).

Neuroscientists have collaborated with cognitive scientists to understand the relation between the mind and brain. They have clarified the brain mechanisms that are responsible for various functions of the mind and their impairments using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), event-related potentials (ERP), and other measures. Many fMRI and ERP studies have revealed the brain mechanisms that are associated with characteristic activities in people with ASD (Dichter, 2012; Gomot & Wicker, 2011; Phillip, Dauvermann, Whalley, Baynham, Lawrie, & Stanfield, 2010).

This special issue presents five original papers and three review papers with a cognitive science or neuroscience approach to DD, ADHD, and ASD. We asked for papers from active researchers who are studying various domains of cognitive science or neuroscience. While not all of these researchers primarily focus on developmental disorders, they are all greatly interested in these disorders because their research might contribute to clarifying the underlying mechanisms.

Highlights of the articles

Autism spectrum disorder

People with ASD exhibit specific types of perception and cognition, that is, they tend to show a bias for local rather than global cognition. Weak central coherence (Frith & Happé, 1994) is an interesting theory by which to explain these characteristics of ASD. Kasai and Murohashi (2013) investigated the tendency of attentional bias toward local details, which is considered to be one of the traits of perception in autism. They examined ERPs in a sustained focal-attention task that involved bilateral stimulus arrays. Their results suggested that bottom-up processing in perceptual organization varies with the autism spectrum quotient (AQ).

People with ASD have some difficulties with face recognition. Such difficulties have been implicated in the difficulties that people with ASD have with social interaction. Kikuchi, Senju, Hasegawa, Tojo, and Osanai (2013) investigated the processing of facial expressions in children with ASD. They examined responses to low spatial frequency images with blurred facial features and high spatial frequency images with rich facial features. Their results suggest that children with ASD are biased toward processing facial expression based on local information.

Children with ASD often have better relationships with objects than with other humans. They have difficulties in communicating with people. Kozima (2013) proposes an interesting theory to explain this tendency. “Cognitive granularity” refers to the size of the basic elements that can operate in one's cognitive system. According to this theory, people with ASD have finer cognitive granularity, and as a result they have difficulties with predicting and controlling their social world, but not the physical world.

Children with ASD interact better with robots than with other humans. Takahashi, Saito, Okada, and Omori (2013) investigated the mechanism of online mentalizing with an index of entropy in human-robot competitive games. Mentalizing is the ability to attribute a mental state to another agent, and is particularly required in actual social contexts. They claim that people with ASD have difficulties with online mentalizing. They propose that there are two separate mentalizing processes: an explicit, logical reasoning process and an implicit, intuitive process. The latter is a core process for online mentalizing, and this is why people with ASD have difficulties in communicating with others.

People with ASD often have specific sensory abnormalities (such as hypersensibility or hypoesthesia), but the mechanism is not yet clear. Toyomaki and Murohashi (2013) investigated the relation between such sensory abnormalities and social cognition. A salience network dysfunction hypothesis has recently been proposed (Menon & Uddin, 2010; Uddin & Menon, 2009). This neuroscientific theory states that the network that integrates external sensory stimuli with internal states mediates interactions between the large-scale networks involved in externally and internally oriented cognitive processing. According to this theory, the salience network in people with ASD shows chronically low activity, and as a result they have difficulties with social cognition and self-referential processing.

While people with ASD have difficulties with communication, people with Williams syndrome (WS) exhibit hypersociability (Bellugi, Adolphs, Cassady, & Chiles, 1999; Capitao, Sampaio, Fernandez, Sousa, Pinheiro, & Gibcalves, 2011). These conditions have opposite characteristic traits of communication (Asada & Itakura, 2012). Inui (2013) investigated cortical network abnormalities in ASD and WS, and discussed the abnormalities he observed in five structures (amygdala, hippocampus, orbitofrontal cortex, inferior frontal cortex, posterior parietal lobe) in ASD and WS. He proposes an interesting neuroscientific framework to understand these findings in a unified manner.

Developmental dyslexia

People with DD have difficulties with reading and often writing. Snowling and Hulme (2013) reviewed reading impairment in children. They discuss definitions, the continuous variation in reading skills, the overlap between reading and language disorders, and evidence-based interventions for reading disorders. They also address the differences between alphabetic and nonalphabetic systems. They think that children who are at risk of dyslexia can be identified early, before they develop a sense of failure, and discuss the need for timely intervention based on assessments. They insist that this disorder is dimensional rather than a discrete diagnostic.

Attention deficit and hyperactivity disorder

People with ADHD often have difficulties controlling their responses. They often have inefficient executive functions (e.g., set shifting, response inhibition, planning, working memory). Robinson and Tripp (2013) investigated neuropsychological functioning (intellectual function, design fluency, spatial organization, and visual memory) in children with ADHD and a control group. They divided children with ADHD into those with persistent ADHD and those with ADHD in partial remission, and found that persistent ADHD was associated with greater cognitive impairment.

I hope that this special issue can stimulate both studies on developmental disorders and studies in cognitive science. Studies on developmental disorders are needed to promote understanding of the mechanisms for perception, memory, learning, emotion, and other basic psychological functions. I believe that if researchers in basic science and clinical researchers draw from each other's studies from a dimensional viewpoint, we may be able to achieve a deeper understanding of human nature.