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Reward System in Autism

Principal Investigator:

It is a core feature of autism that social interactions appear to be far less rewarding for autistic children compared to typically developing children. Based on this observation, one would predict that children with autism would show different behavioral responses to reinforcers involving social stimuli (e.g., a smile or pleasant remark) compared to behavioral responses to reinforcers that are non-social (e.g., objects, toys, food). One might also predict that the patterns of brain activation in reward-related brain regions are anomalous in children with autism.

Therefore, our dual goals are to evaluate hypotheses about whether children with high functioning autism (HFA) have anomalous behavioral responses to social reinforcers and non-social reinforcers and whether or not these impairments are associated with aberrant neural substrates in response to reward (e.g., in reward-related brain structures that include the orbital frontal cortex, amygdala, and ventral striatum/nucleus accumbens). We will determine whether there is a general deficit for reward-related responding or whether there is an impairment specific to social rewards.

We will determine whether the autistic brain's reward system is abnormal in all respects or only in response to social reinforcers.

We have nearly completed the data collection for this project. We are completing behavioral testing in the last 1-2 participants. We are working on analyzing the behavioral data and the fMRI data. We are working on preparing the data for presentations and scientific meetings and for publications.

We plan to share de-identified fMRI data with colleagues at Baylor College of Medicine for the purposes of their testing out some new fMRI analyses methods.

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