Structural Learning Difficulties Implicate Altered Hippocampal Functioning in Adults With Autism Spectrum Disorder

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Structural learning is fundamental to the formation of cognitive maps that are necessary for learning, memory, and spatial navigation. It also enables successful navigation of the social world, which is something that individuals with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) find particularly difficult. To master these situations, a person needs to bind pieces of information to one another and to consider the context in which experiences happen. Such binding is a capacity of the hippocampus. Although altered hippocampal function has for long been suspected to play a role in the etiology of ASD, the relevant evidence has remained inconclusive because few behavioral tests that are known to specifically necessitate preserved hippocampal function have been employed in studies of ASD. To address this gap in the literature, a total sample of 57 pairs of age and ability matched ASD and comparison participants was divided into 3 subsamples who were asked either to complete structural learning, or 1 of 2 configural learning control tasks (biconditional discrimination and transverse patterning) drawn from animal research. As predicted, ASD adults demonstrated specific difficulty with structural learning but not with other forms of configural learning. These differences were not attributable to decreased attentional shifting or increased perseveration, which would have indicated atypical frontal modulation of hippocampal processes. Instead, the observations implicate atypical hippocampal functioning as the source of structural learning difficulties in ASD. The data suggest that disturbances in domain-general cognitive processes such as structural learning, caused by altered hippocampal function, play a critical role in the etiology of ASD.

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