Insula response and connectivity during social and non-social attention in children with autism

Soc Cogn Affect Neurosci. 2016 Mar;11(3):433-44. doi: 10.1093/scan/nsv126. Epub 2015 Oct 9.


Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is characterized by reduced attention to salient social stimuli. Here, we use two visual oddball tasks to investigate brain systems engaged during attention to social (face) and non-social (scene) stimuli. We focused on the dorsal and ventral subdivisions of the anterior insula (dAI and vAI, respectively), anatomically distinct regions contributing to a 'salience network' that is known to regulate attention to behaviorally meaningful stimuli. Children with ASD performed comparably to their typically developing (TD) peers, but they engaged the right dAI and vAI differently in response to deviant faces compared with deviant scenes. Multivariate activation patterns in the dAI reliably discriminated between children with ASD and TD children with 85% classification accuracy, and children with ASD activated the vAI more than their TD peers. Children with ASD and their TD peers also differed in dAI connectivity patterns to deviant faces, with stronger within-salience network interactions in the ASD group and stronger cross-network interactions in the TD group. Our findings point to atypical patterns of right anterior insula activation and connectivity in ASD and suggest that multiple functions subserved by the insula, including attention and affective processing of salient social stimuli, are aberrant in children with the disorder.

Keywords: autism spectrum disorder; functional connectivity; multivariate pattern analysis; oddball; salience network.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Asperger Syndrome / psychology
  • Attention*
  • Autistic Disorder / physiopathology*
  • Autistic Disorder / psychology*
  • Cerebral Cortex / physiopathology*
  • Child
  • Child Development Disorders, Pervasive / psychology
  • Discrimination, Psychological
  • Face
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Magnetic Resonance Imaging
  • Male
  • Neural Pathways / physiopathology*
  • Photic Stimulation
  • Social Behavior*
  • Social Environment
  • Visual Perception