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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.
Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and obsessive–compulsive disorder (OCD) are neurodevelopmental disorders with considerable overlap in terms of their defining symptoms of compulsivity/repetitive behaviour. Little is known about the extent to which ASD and OCD have common versus distinct neural correlates of compulsivity. Previous research points to potentially common dysfunction in frontostriatal connectivity, but direct comparisons in one study are lacking. Here, we assessed frontostriatal resting-state functional connectivity in youth with ASD or OCD, and healthy controls. In addition, we applied a cross-disorder approach to examine whether repetitive behaviour across ASD and OCD has common neural substrates.
A sample of 78 children and adolescents aged 8–16 years was used (ASD n = 24; OCD n = 25; healthy controls n = 29), originating from the multicentre study COMPULS. We tested whether diagnostic group, repetitive behaviour (measured with the Repetitive Behavior Scale-Revised) or their interaction was associated with resting-state functional connectivity of striatal seed regions.
No diagnosis-specific differences were detected. The cross-disorder analysis, on the other hand, showed that increased functional connectivity between the left nucleus accumbens (NAcc) and a cluster in the right premotor cortex/middle frontal gyrus was related to more severe symptoms of repetitive behaviour.
We demonstrate the fruitfulness of applying a cross-disorder approach to investigate the neural underpinnings of compulsivity/repetitive behaviour, by revealing a shared alteration in functional connectivity in ASD and OCD. We argue that this alteration might reflect aberrant reward or motivational processing of the NAcc with excessive connectivity to the premotor cortex implementing learned action patterns.
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