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Research News at Vanderbilt

Autism narrows brain’s reward response

by Matt Windsor


Children with autism spectrum disorders (ASD) are largely unresponsive to social rewards, such as smiling faces. The source of this unresponsiveness is related to differences in how the brain’s reward system functions in people with ASD and those with typical development (TD).

Carissa Cascio, Ph.D., and colleagues have found that the reward systems for children with ASD and TD perform similarly when exposed to images of hobbies or objects of interest. Their work, published in the Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, implies that there is common brain activity related to rewarding activities for all children.

The researchers took MRI brain scans of ASD and TD children. When exposed to images related to their own hobbies or interests, both groups demonstrated similar brain activity. When shown images related to other children’s interests, the TD group possessed higher levels of activity than the ASD group. These results suggest that novel, unfamiliar pictures are rewarding to typical children, but not those with ASD, whose brains respond to a narrower range of familiar rewards.

This research was supported by grants from the National Institutes of Health (MH090232, RR024975, EY008126).

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  • ella burge

    I have a friend who has just told me he is autistic. I just never even noticed but he has suffered since childhood how can I make his life happier ? Maybe by understanding more about it? He wont discuss it with me I”ve asked him to teach me what its like but he clams up.

    • Conuly

      Do you know he suffers and is unhappy, or are you just assuming?

      As far as him not wanting to teach you, well, that isn’t his job. It can be very exhausting having to go around being a self-narrating zoo exhibit, as they say. Not the sort of thing you want to do when relaxing with friends!