The core diagnostic criteria for autism spectrum disorder (ASD) are deficits in social interactions and communication. Another side to autism, though, is its impact on basic perception: people with ASD see, hear, and feel the world differently. One aspect of perception that poses difficulty for people with ASD is ignoring distractions - when performing visual tasks, increasing (but not all) evidence suggests that subjects with ASD experience more interference from irrelevant information than typical controls, becoming slower and less accurate in the face of distraction. A deficit in attentional selection might not only affect perception, but might further underlie the difficulties that individuals with ASD have in coping with everyday cognitive tasks in complex real-world environments. In the proposed research, we will pinpoint the specific stage(s) of attentional selection that are impaired in ASD using behavioral psychophysics. Further, we will test the involvement of the pulvinar and multiple-demand (MD) network, two brain regions known to support attentional selection, in ASD using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) and diffusion weighted imaging (DWI). The proposed experiments will address three specific questions: 1) Which attentional selection functions are impaired in ASD, and which are spared? 2) Which parts of the brain's attentional network show abnormal responses in ASD? 3) Is the anatomy of attentional areas, including their white matter connections, disrupted in ASD? The answers to these questions will advance our understanding of the cognitive and neural phenotype of ASD, and at the same time inform our understanding of visual attention and its brain basis in typical individuals. The broader objective of the proposed studies is to cultivate new expertise in studying subjects with autism, and in the design, analysis, and interpretation of structural imaging studies (including both morphometry and diffusion- weighted imaging).

Public Health Relevance

Almost 1 in 100 children born in the United States will be diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder (ASD), making ASD one of the most prevalent neurodevelopmental disorders in the US and worldwide. Autism can have devastating consequences, one of which is a difficulty focusing attention on important items while ignoring distracting ones. The research we propose here is aimed at understanding how visual attention is affected in autism, and what areas of the brain are involved;the outcomes of this work will speak to potential therapeutic interventions for those with autism, as well as advancing our basic understanding of how visual attention operates in ASD and typical individuals.

National Institute of Health (NIH)
Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health & Human Development (NICHD)
Postdoctoral Individual National Research Service Award (F32)
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Special Emphasis Panel (ZRG1-F01-F (20))
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Kau, Alice S
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Massachusetts Institute of Technology
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United States
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Fischer, Jason; Koldewyn, Kami; Jiang, Yuhong V et al. (2014) Unimpaired Attentional Disengagement and Social Orienting in Children with Autism. Clin Psychol Sci 2:214-223