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Reward processing has been proposed to underpin the atypical social feature of autism spectrum disorder (ASD). However, previous neuroimaging studies have yielded inconsistent results regarding the specificity of atypicalities for social reward processing in ASD.
Utilising a large sample, we aimed to assess reward processing in response to reward type (social, monetary) and reward phase (anticipation, delivery) in ASD.
Functional magnetic resonance imaging during social and monetary reward anticipation and delivery was performed in 212 individuals with ASD (7.6–30.6 years of age) and 181 typically developing participants (7.6–30.8 years of age).
Across social and monetary reward anticipation, whole-brain analyses showed hypoactivation of the right ventral striatum in participants with ASD compared with typically developing participants. Further, region of interest analysis across both reward types yielded ASD-related hypoactivation in both the left and right ventral striatum. Across delivery of social and monetary reward, hyperactivation of the ventral striatum in individuals with ASD did not survive correction for multiple comparisons. Dimensional analyses of autism and attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) scores were not significant. In categorical analyses, post hoc comparisons showed that ASD effects were most pronounced in participants with ASD without co-occurring ADHD.
Our results do not support current theories linking atypical social interaction in ASD to specific alterations in social reward processing. Instead, they point towards a generalised hypoactivity of ventral striatum in ASD during anticipation of both social and monetary rewards. We suggest this indicates attenuated reward seeking in ASD independent of social content and that elevated ADHD symptoms may attenuate altered reward seeking in ASD.
Disruptive behavior disorders (DBD) are heterogeneous at the clinical and the biological level. Therefore, the aims were to dissect the heterogeneous neurodevelopmental deviations of the affective brain circuitry and provide an integration of these differences across modalities.
We combined two novel approaches. First, normative modeling to map deviations from the typical age-related pattern at the level of the individual of (i) activity during emotion matching and (ii) of anatomical images derived from DBD cases (n = 77) and controls (n = 52) aged 8–18 years from the EU-funded Aggressotype and MATRICS consortia. Second, linked independent component analysis to integrate subject-specific deviations from both modalities.
While cases exhibited on average a higher activity than would be expected for their age during face processing in regions such as the amygdala when compared to controls these positive deviations were widespread at the individual level. A multimodal integration of all functional and anatomical deviations explained 23% of the variance in the clinical DBD phenotype. Most notably, the top marker, encompassing the default mode network (DMN) and subcortical regions such as the amygdala and the striatum, was related to aggression across the whole sample.
Overall increased age-related deviations in the amygdala in DBD suggest a maturational delay, which has to be further validated in future studies. Further, the integration of individual deviation patterns from multiple imaging modalities allowed to dissect some of the heterogeneity of DBD and identified the DMN, the striatum and the amygdala as neural signatures that were associated with aggression.
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