Autistic traits modulate frontostriatal connectivity during processing of rewarding faces

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Deficits in facial mimicry have been widely reported in autism. Some studies have suggested that these deficits are restricted to spontaneous mimicry and do not extend to volitional mimicry. We bridge these apparently inconsistent observations by testing the impact of reward value on neural indices of mimicry and how autistic traits modulate this impact. Neutral faces were conditioned with high and low reward. Subsequently, functional connectivity between the ventral striatum (VS) and inferior frontal gyrus (IFG) was measured while neurotypical adults (n = 30) watched happy expressions made by these conditioned faces. We found greater VS-IFG connectivity in response to high reward vs low reward happy faces. This difference was negatively proportional to autistic traits, suggesting that reduced spontaneous mimicry of social stimuli seen in autism, may be related to a failure in the modulation of the mirror system by the reward system rather than a circumscribed deficit in the mirror system.

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Sims, T. B., Neufeld, J., Johnstone, T., & Chakrabarti, B. (2013). Autistic traits modulate frontostriatal connectivity during processing of rewarding faces. Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience, 9(12), 2010–2016.

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