Neural mechanisms of encoding social and non-social context information in autism spectrum disorder
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AbstractIndividuals with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) often fail to attach context to their memories and are specifically impaired in processing social aspects of contextual information. The aim of the present study was to investigate the modulatory influence of social vs. non-social context on neural mechanisms during encoding in ASD. Using event-related fMRI, 13 boys with ASD and 13 typically developing boys comparable for age and IQ were investigated during encoding of neutral objects presented either with a social (faces) or a non-social (houses) context. A memory paradigm was then applied to identify brain activation patterns associated with encoding of subsequently recollected versus non-recollected objects. On the behavioural level, no significant between-group differences emerged. In particular, no differential effects of context on memory performance were observed. Neurally, however, context-specific group differences were observed in several brain regions. During encoding of subsequently recollected objects presented with a face, ASD subjects (compared to controls) showed reduced neural activation in the bilateral inferior frontal gyrus, bilateral middle frontal gyrus and right inferior parietal lobule. Neural activation in the right inferior frontal gyrus was positively correlated with memory performance in controls, but negatively in ASD individuals. During encoding of subsequently non-recollected objects presented in the non-social context, ASD subjects showed increased activation in the dorsal MPFC. Our findings suggest that in ASD subjects, fronto-parietal brain regions subserving memory formation and the association of contextual information are activated atypically when a social context is presented at encoding. The data add to findings from related research fields indicating that in ASD, socioemotional impairment extends into domains beyond social cognition. Increased activation in the dorsal MPFC in ASD individuals might reflect supervisory cognitive processes related to the suppression of a distracting non-social context.