Disentangling the autism-anxiety overlap: fMRI of reward processing in a community-based longitudinal study

Transl Psychiatry. 2016 Jun 28;6(6):e845. doi: 10.1038/tp.2016.107.


Up to 40% of youth with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) also suffer from anxiety, and this comorbidity is linked with significant functional impairment. However, the mechanisms of this overlap are poorly understood. We investigated the interplay between ASD traits and anxiety during reward processing, known to be affected in ASD, in a community sample of 1472 adolescents (mean age=14.4 years) who performed a modified monetary incentive delay task as part of the Imagen project. Blood-oxygen-level dependent (BOLD) responses to reward anticipation and feedback were compared using a 2x2 analysis of variance test (ASD traits: low/high; anxiety symptoms: low/high), controlling for plausible covariates. In addition, we used a longitudinal design to assess whether neural responses during reward processing predicted anxiety at 2-year follow-up. High ASD traits were associated with reduced BOLD responses in dorsal prefrontal regions during reward anticipation and negative feedback. Participants with high anxiety symptoms showed increased lateral prefrontal responses during anticipation, but decreased responses following feedback. Interaction effects revealed that youth with combined ASD traits and anxiety, relative to other youth, showed high right insula activation when anticipating reward, and low right-sided caudate, putamen, medial and lateral prefrontal activations during negative feedback (all clusters PFWE<0.05). BOLD activation patterns in the right dorsal cingulate and right medial frontal gyrus predicted new-onset anxiety in participants with high but not low ASD traits. Our results reveal both quantitatively enhanced and qualitatively distinct neural correlates underlying the comorbidity between ASD traits and anxiety. Specific neural responses during reward processing may represent a risk factor for developing anxiety in ASD youth.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Anticipation, Psychological / physiology
  • Anxiety Disorders / diagnostic imaging*
  • Anxiety Disorders / physiopathology
  • Autism Spectrum Disorder / diagnostic imaging*
  • Brain / diagnostic imaging*
  • Brain / physiopathology*
  • Cerebral Cortex / diagnostic imaging
  • Cerebral Cortex / physiopathology
  • Comorbidity
  • Dominance, Cerebral / physiology
  • Feedback
  • Female
  • Follow-Up Studies
  • Frontal Lobe / diagnostic imaging
  • Frontal Lobe / physiopathology
  • Gyrus Cinguli / diagnostic imaging
  • Gyrus Cinguli / physiopathology
  • Humans
  • Longitudinal Studies
  • Magnetic Resonance Imaging*
  • Male
  • Oxygen / blood
  • Prefrontal Cortex / diagnostic imaging
  • Prefrontal Cortex / physiopathology
  • Reward*


  • Oxygen