Under-reactive but easily distracted: An fMRI investigation of attentional capture in autism spectrum disorder

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Abstract

For individuals with autism spectrum disorder (ASD), salient behaviorally-relevant information often fails to capture attention, while subtle behaviorally-irrelevant details commonly induce a state of distraction. The present study used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to investigate the neurocognitive networks underlying attentional capture in sixteen high-functioning children and adolescents with ASD and twenty-one typically developing (TD) individuals. Participants completed a rapid serial visual presentation paradigm designed to investigate activation of attentional networks to behaviorally-relevant targets and contingent attention capture by task-irrelevant distractors. In individuals with ASD, target stimuli failed to trigger bottom-up activation of the ventral attentional network and the cerebellum. Additionally, the ASD group showed no differences in behavior or occipital activation associated with contingent attentional capture. Rather, results suggest that to-be-ignored distractors that shared either task-relevant or irrelevant features captured attention in ASD. Results indicate that individuals with ASD may be under-reactive to behaviorally-relevant stimuli, unable to filter irrelevant information, and that both top-down and bottom-up attention networks function atypically in ASD. Lastly, deficits in target-related processing were associated with autism symptomatology, providing further support for the hypothesis that non-social attentional processes and their neurofunctional underpinnings may play a significant role in the development of sociocommunicative impairments in ASD.

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Keehn, B., Nair, A., Lincoln, A. J., Townsend, J., & Müller, R. A. (2016). Under-reactive but easily distracted: An fMRI investigation of attentional capture in autism spectrum disorder. Developmental Cognitive Neuroscience, 17, 46–56. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.dcn.2015.12.002

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