Reward circuitry function in autism spectrum disorders

Soc Cogn Affect Neurosci. 2012 Feb;7(2):160-72. doi: 10.1093/scan/nsq095. Epub 2010 Dec 8.


Social interaction deficits and restricted repetitive behaviors and interests that characterize autism spectrum disorders (ASDs) may both reflect aberrant functioning of brain reward circuits. However, no neuroimaging study to date has investigated the integrity of reward circuits using an incentive delay paradigm in individuals with ASDs. In the present study, we used functional magnetic resonance imaging to assess blood-oxygen level-dependent activation during reward anticipation and outcomes in 15 participants with an ASD and 16 matched control participants. Brain activation was assessed during anticipation of and in response to monetary incentives and object image incentives previously shown to be visually salient for individuals with ASDs (e.g., trains, electronics). Participants with ASDs showed decreased nucleus accumbens activation during monetary anticipation and outcomes, but not during object anticipation or outcomes. Group × reward-type-interaction tests revealed robust interaction effects in bilateral nucleus accumbens during reward anticipation and in ventromedial prefrontal cortex during reward outcomes, indicating differential responses contingent on reward type in these regions. Results suggest that ASDs are characterized by reward-circuitry hypoactivation in response to monetary incentives but not in response to autism-relevant object images. The clinical implications of the double dissociation of reward type and temporal phase in reward circuitry function in ASD are discussed.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Behavior / physiology
  • Brain / physiology
  • Brain Mapping
  • Child
  • Child Development Disorders, Pervasive / physiopathology*
  • Humans
  • Image Processing, Computer-Assisted
  • Magnetic Resonance Imaging
  • Male
  • Motivation / physiology*
  • Neuroimaging
  • Nucleus Accumbens / physiopathology*
  • Prefrontal Cortex / physiology
  • Reward*