Social stimuli interfere with cognitive control in autism.
Autism spectrum disorders are characterized by cognitive control deficits as well as impairments in social interactions. However, the brain mechanisms mediating the interactive effects of these deficits have not been addressed. We employed event-related functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to examine the effects of processing directional information from faces on activity within brain regions mediating cognitive control. High-functioning individuals with autism and age-, gender-, and IQ-matched neurotypical individuals attended to the direction of a centrally-presented arrow or gaze stimulus with similar flanker stimuli oriented in the same ("congruent") or opposite ("incongruent") direction. The incongruent arrow condition was examined to assess functioning of brain regions mediating cognitive control in a context without social-cognitive demands, whereas the incongruent gaze condition assessed functioning of the same brain regions in a social-cognitive context. Consistent with prior studies, the incongruent arrow condition recruited activity in bilateral midfrontal gyrus, right inferior frontal gyrus, bilateral intraparietal sulcus, and the anterior cingulate relative to the congruent arrow condition in neurotypical participants. Notably, there were not diagnostic group differences in patterns of regional fMRI activation in response to the arrow condition. However, while viewing the incongruent gaze stimuli, although neurotypical participants recruited the same brain regions, participants with autism showed marked hypoactivation in these areas. These findings suggest that processing social-cognitive stimuli interferes with functioning of brain regions recruited during cognitive control tasks in autism. Implications for research into cognitive control deficits in autism are discussed.
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