This is an application for an NIH K01 Mentored Research Scientist Development Award: "Decoding neural systems underlying affective prosody in children with autism." The overall goal of the proposed work is to better understand the neural basis of auditory information processing deficits in children with autism. Children with autism often exhibit pragmatic language impairments, including impaired perception of emotional content in speech.
My specific aim here is to better understand the neural basis of this phenomenon using multivariate pattern recognition techniques and network-based analyses applied to functional magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) data and state-of-the-art diffusion tensor imaging (DTI) data. To achieve this goal, I propose to conduct three experiments to investigate the functional and structural bases of affective prosody processing in children with ASD and TD children. In the first experiment, functional MRI and novel multivariate pattern recognition techniques will be used to examine discrimination of positively and negatively valenced speech stimuli in the brain of children with ASD and TD children. In the second experiment, I will assess the functional integrity of brain networks recruited during the perception of affective prosodic cues in children with ASD and TD children. In the third experiment, I will use DTI to investigate the structural integrity of white matter tracts that are critical for speech comprehension in children with ASD and TD children. Findings from these experiments will provide novel insights into the perceptual and brain bases of emotional processing of speech, and will enable a more thorough understanding of the cognitive and brain systems underlying pervasive social communication deficits in ASD. In addition to the proposed research, I will undergo a rigorous education and training plan to increase expertise in clinical aspects of autism research, the psychology and neuroscience of reward and emotion, and DTI. I will be mentored and trained by experts in the fields of clinical psychology, psychiatry, and affective and cognitive neuroscience. I will also gain a thorough understanding of the behavioral and diagnostic measures administered to children with ASD so I may use them in a highly informed manner in my current and future research. Formal coursework and attendance at seminars in the psychology of reward, emotion, neuroanatomy, structural neuroimaging, and clinical psychology will assist in achieving this goal. Completing the proposed research project will enable me to become a successful independent investigator in the field of auditory cognitive neuroscience.
Understanding the emotional state of a communication partner stands at the center of meaningful and successful human interaction, and speech serves as a conduit for conveying critical emotional information in everyday communication. Social communication deficits constitute a core characteristic of children with Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD) and research has identified a specific impairment in interpreting the emotional content of speech in individuals with ASD. The overall goal of the proposed research is to further our understanding of the cognitive and brain bases of emotional processing of speech in children with ASD.