Understanding the emotional state of a person one is communicating with stands at the center of meaningful and successful human interaction, and speech serves as a conduit for conveying critical emotional information in everyday communication. Social communication deficits constitute a core characteristic of children with autism. Research has identified a specific impairment in interpreting the emotional content of speech, known as affective prosody, in individuals with autism. Little is known about the biological basis for affective prosody difficulties in children with autism.
Vinod Menon, Daniel Abrams and their colleagues at Stanford University in California aim to explore the neural bases of affective prosody perception in children with autism. They plan to use functional and structural magnetic resonance imaging, techniques that provide high-resolution spatial information about the brain.
Menon and Abrams’ recent work showed that individuals with autism have weak brain connections between areas of the cortex that selectively respond to human vocal sounds and the ventral striatum and amygdala, brain regions that are important for reward and emotional processing, respectively1. The proposed studies aim to test the hypothesis that the integrity of these particular brain circuits affects the impaired perception of affective prosody in individuals with autism.
Menon’s team plans to study brain function in school-aged children (9 to 12 years old) with autism as well as controls while they listen to ‘happy’ and ‘sad’ spoken sentences. The researchers hope to examine relationships between brain activity and connectivity in response to these sentences, and behavioral measures of social communication and speech and language function.