Atypical activation of action-semantic network in adolescents with autism spectrum disorder

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In typical adults, fMRI studies have shown activation of primary and pre-motor regions during action word processing. Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is a neurodevelopmental disorder characterized by social and communication impairments. ASD studies have shown atypical semantic processing and motor deficits. The objective of this study was to examine semantic processing of verbs in ASD. 15 ASD adolescents and 19 typically developing adolescents, 11–16 years, completed a semantic similarity judgment task during fMRI. There were no differences in task accuracy or reaction time. At the group level, both groups had activation in left language areas; controls, but not ASD, also had activation in the left pre-supplementary motor area (pre-SMA). In ASD, less left frontal activation and reduced left lateralization of activation within these regions was associated with shorter reaction times and better language skills. More left temporal activation was associated with better language abilities in ASD. Differences in pre-SMA activation may relate to motor planning deficits or differences in approach to the semantic task in ASD. Results suggest that left frontal language areas may be less efficient in ASD and those who can compensate by recruiting more right hemisphere homologues may result in better language abilities.

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