Reward system dysfunction in autism spectrum disorders

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Although it has been suggested that social deficits of autism spectrum disorders (ASDs) are related to reward circuitry dysfunction, very little is known about the neural reward mechanisms in ASD. In the current functional magnetic resonance imaging study, we investigated brain activations in response to both social and monetary reward in a group of children with ASD, relative to matched controls. Participants with ASD showed the expected hypoactivation in the mesocorticolimbic circuitry in response to both reward types. In particular, diminished activation in the nucleus accumbens was observed when money, but not when social reward, was at stake, whereas the amygdala and anterior cingulate cortex were hypoactivated within the ASD group in response to both rewards. These data indicate that the reward circuitry is compromised in ASD in social as well as in non-social, i.e. monetary conditions, which likely contributes to atypical motivated behaviour. Taken together, with incentives used in this study sample, there is evidence for a general reward dysfunction in ASD. However, more ecologically valid social reward paradigms are needed to fully understand, whether there is any domain specificity to the reward deficit that appears evident in ASD, which would be most consistent with the ASD social phenotype.

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