Behavioral and Neural Correlates of Reward Motivation in Children with Autism Spectrum Disorders
University of North Carolina
Weatherstone Predoctoral Fellowship
The core symptom domains associated with autism spectrum disorders (ASD) (i.e., social ability, language development, and restricted and repetitive behaviors and interests) may all be linked functionally to a lack of motivation to seek and obtain rewards in the environment. This impaired motivation may cause individuals with ASD to miss out on key opportunities for engaging in social interactions and learning language throughout development, as well as contribute to challenging clinical characteristics of ASD, such as an insistence on sameness, stereotyped movements, and circumscribed interests. This study aims to examine reward motivation in 9- to 12-year-old children with ASD and typically developing children both in behavior and in brain functioning (as measured by functional magnetic resonance imaging, (fMRI) and to investigate how these measures of reward motivation are related to core symptom domains of ASD. The study will also examine potential differences in the motivation to achieve rewards relevant to social functioning versus the motivation to achieve rewards that are not relevant to social functioning. A better understanding of the processes underlying reward motivation in children with ASD could inform educational approaches that use rewards to motivate learning and could provide a novel target in the brain for psychopharmacological interventions. Interventions that target reward processing in individuals with ASD could potentially improve functioning across all three symptoms domains. Such interventions may be more effective for children with ASD when limited time and resources make it difficult for families to pursue several separate interventions simultaneously.