Gender-specific modulation of neural mechanisms underlying social reward processing by Autism Quotient


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Abstract

Autism spectrum disorder refers to a neurodevelopmental condition primarily characterized by deficits in social cognition and behavior. Subclinically, autistic features are supposed to be present in healthy humans and can be quantified using the Autism Quotient (AQ). Here, we investigated a potential relationship between AQ and neural correlates of social and monetary reward processing, using functional magnetic resonance imaging in young, healthy participants. In an incentive delay task with either monetary or social reward, reward anticipation elicited increased ventral striatal activation, which was more pronounced during monetary reward anticipation. Anticipation of social reward elicited activation in the default mode network (DMN), a network previously implicated in social processing. Social reward feedback was associated with bilateral amygdala and fusiform face area activation. The relationship between AQ and neural correlates of social reward processing varied in a gender-dependent manner. In women and, to a lesser extent in men, higher AQ was associated with increased posterior DMN activation during social reward anticipation. During feedback, we observed a negative correlation of AQ and right amygdala activation in men only. Our results suggest that social reward processing might constitute an endophenotype for autism-related traits in healthy humans that manifests in a gender-specific way.

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