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The Cutting Edge

Cueing the Brain

A UCLA STUDY has discovered that instructing autistic children to notice cues like facial expression and vocal tone trained their brains to better understand conversational meaning. Published in the June edition of the Archives of General Psychiatry, the research suggests a possible new route for treating autism.

The UCLA team used MRI to scan the brains of 18 autistic boys as they viewed and listened to narrated cartoon strips featuring children. Half of the cartoons ended with an ironic remark. After comparing the brain scans to those from a control group of 18 nonautistic boys the same age, the scientists found that the autistic children displayed less activity in the medial prefrontal cortex, part of the brain’s network for understanding others’ intentions. When researchers coached the autistic children to pay attention to the speaker’s facial expression and vocal tone, however, activity in this brain region increased significantly.

“Our findings imply that you can train the autistic brain to make use of information conveyed by the human face and voice in order to successfully navigate social interactions,” says Dr. Mirella Dapretto, associate professor of psychiatry and biobehavioral sciences at the Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior at UCLA. “The fact that we can ‘normalize’ brain activity by directing autistic children’s attention to important social cues indicates there’s nothing wrong with this region in the autistic brain,” adds Dr. Dapretto.


Images at left show no significant activity in key part
of the "social brain" indicated by yellow arrows, while
images on right show normal activity when child's attention
was explicitly directed toward speaker's facial expression
and tone of voice.

Illustration courtesy of Dr. Mirella DaPretto




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