Altered intrinsic functional connectivity of the cingulate cortex in children with severe temper outbursts
Severe temper outbursts (STO) in children are associated with impaired school and family functioning and may contribute to negative outcomes. These outbursts can be conceptualized as excessive frustration responses reflecting reduced emotion regulation capacity. The anterior cingulate cortex (ACC) has been implicated in negative affect as well as emotional control, and exhibits disrupted function in children with elevated irritability and outbursts. This study examined the intrinsic functional connectivity (iFC) of a region of the ACC, the anterior midcingulate cortex (aMCC), in 5- to 9-year-old children with STO (n = 20), comparing them to children with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) without outbursts (ADHD; n = 18). Additional analyses compared results to a sample of healthy children (HC; n = 18) and examined specific associations with behavioral and emotional dysregulation. Compared to the ADHD group, STO children exhibited reduced iFC between the aMCC and surrounding regions of the ACC, and increased iFC between the aMCC and precuneus. These differences were also seen between the STO and HC groups; ADHD and HC groups did not differ. Specificity analyses found associations between aMCC-ACC connectivity and hyperactivity, and between aMCC-precuneus iFC and emotion dysregulation. Disruption in aMCC networks may underlie the behavioral and emotional dysregulation characteristic of children with STO.
Human Amygdala Tracks a Feature-Based Valence Signal Embedded within the Facial Expression of Surprise
Human amygdala function has been traditionally associated with processing the affective valence (negative vs positive) of an emotionally charged event, especially those that signal fear or threat. However, this account of human amygdala function can be explained by alternative views, which posit that the amygdala might be tuned to either (1) general emotional arousal (activation vs deactivation) or (2) specific emotion categories (fear vs happy). Delineating the pure effects of valence independent of arousal or emotion category is a challenging task, given that these variables naturally covary under many circumstances. To circumvent this issue and test the sensitivity of the human amygdala to valence values specifically, we measured the dimension of valence within the single facial expression category of surprise. Given the inherent valence ambiguity of this category, we show that surprised expression exemplars are attributed valence and arousal values that are uniquely and naturally uncorrelated. We then present fMRI data from both sexes, showing that the amygdala tracks these consensus valence values. Finally, we provide evidence that these valence values are linked to specific visual features of the mouth region, isolating the signal by which the amygdala detects this valence information.SIGNIFICANCE STATEMENT There is an open question as to whether human amygdala function tracks the valence value of cues in the environment, as opposed to either a more general emotional arousal value or a more specific emotion category distinction. Here, we demonstrate the utility of surprised facial expressions because exemplars within this emotion category take on valence values spanning the dimension of bipolar valence (positive to negative) at a consistent level of emotional arousal. Functional neuroimaging data showed that amygdala responses tracked the valence of surprised facial expressions, unconfounded by arousal. Furthermore, a machine learning classifier identified particular visual features of the mouth region that predicted this valence effect, isolating the specific visual signal that might be driving this neural valence response.
The Neural Correlates of Emotional Lability in Children with Autism Spectrum Disorder
Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is exceptionally heterogeneous in both clinical and physiopathological presentations. Clinical variability applies to ASD-specific symptoms and frequent comorbid psychopathology such as emotional lability (EL). To date, the physiopathological underpinnings of the co-occurrence of EL and ASD are unknown. As a first step, we examined within-ASD inter-individual variability of EL and its neuronal correlates using resting-state functional magnetic resonance imaging (R-fMRI). We analyzed R-fMRI data from 58 children diagnosed with ASD (5-12 years) in relation to the Conners' Parent Rating Scale EL index. We performed both an a priori amygdala region-of-interest (ROI) analysis, and a multivariate unbiased whole-brain data-driven approach. While no significant brain-behavior relationships were identified regarding amygdala intrinsic functional connectivity (iFC), multivariate whole-brain analyses revealed an extended functional circuitry centered on two regions: middle frontal gyrus (MFG) and posterior insula (PI). Follow-up parametric and nonparametric ROI-analyses of these regions revealed relationships between EL and MFG- and PI-iFC with default, salience, and visual networks suggesting that higher-order cognitive and somatosensory processes are critical for emotion regulation in ASD. We did not detect evidence of amygdala iFC underpinning EL in ASD. However, exploratory whole-brain analyses identified large-scale networks that have been previously reported abnormal in ASD. Future studies should consider EL as a potential source of neuronal heterogeneity in ASD and focus on multinetwork interactions.
Brain Mechanisms for Processing Affective (and Nonaffective) Touch Are Atypical in Autism
C-tactile (CT) afferents encode caress-like touch that supports social-emotional development, and stimulation of the CT system engages the insula and cortical circuitry involved in social-emotional processing. Very few neuroimaging studies have investigated the neural mechanisms of touch processing in people with autism spectrum disorder (ASD), who often exhibit atypical responses to touch. Using functional magnetic resonance imaging, we evaluated the hypothesis that children and adolescents with ASD would exhibit atypical brain responses to CT-targeted touch. Children and adolescents with ASD, relative to typically developing (TD) participants, exhibited reduced activity in response to CT-targeted (arm) versus non-CT-targeted (palm) touch in a network of brain regions known to be involved in social-emotional information processing including bilateral insula and insular operculum, the right posterior superior temporal sulcus, bilateral temporoparietal junction extending into the inferior parietal lobule, right fusiform gyrus, right amygdala, and bilateral ventrolateral prefrontal cortex including the inferior frontal and precentral gyri, suggesting atypical social brain hypoactivation. Individuals with ASD (vs. TD) showed an enhanced response to non-CT-targeted versus CT-targeted touch in the primary somatosensory cortex, suggesting atypical sensory cortical hyper-reactivity.
Neural specialization for speech in the first months of life
How does the brain's response to speech change over the first months of life? Although behavioral findings indicate that neonates' listening biases are sharpened over the first months of life, with a species-specific preference for speech emerging by 3 months, the neural substrates underlying this developmental change are unknown. We examined neural responses to speech compared with biological non-speech sounds in 1- to 4-month-old infants using fMRI. Infants heard speech and biological non-speech sounds, including heterospecific vocalizations and human non-speech. We observed a left-lateralized response in temporal cortex for speech compared to biological non-speech sounds, indicating that this region is highly selective for speech by the first month of life. Specifically, this brain region becomes increasingly selective for speech over the next 3 months as neural substrates become less responsive to non-speech sounds. These results reveal specific changes in neural responses during a developmental period characterized by rapid behavioral changes.
fNIRS detects temporal lobe response to affective touch
Touch plays a crucial role in social-emotional development. Slow, gentle touch applied to hairy skin is processed by C-tactile (CT) nerve fibers. Furthermore, 'social brain' regions, such as the posterior superior temporal sulcus (pSTS) have been shown to process CT-targeted touch. Research on the development of these neural mechanisms is scant, yet such knowledge may inform our understanding of the critical role of touch in development and its dysfunction in disorders involving sensory issues, such as autism. The aim of this study was to validate the ability of functional near-infrared spectroscopy (fNIRS), an imaging technique well-suited for use with infants, to measure temporal lobe responses to CT-targeted touch. Healthy adults received brushing to the right forearm (CT) and palm (non-CT) separately, in a block design procedure. We found significant activation in right pSTS and dorsolateral prefrontal cortex to arm > palm touch. In addition, individual differences in autistic traits were related to the magnitude of peak activation within pSTS. These findings demonstrate that fNIRS can detect brain responses to CT-targeted touch and lay the foundation for future work with infant populations that will characterize the development of brain mechanisms for processing CT-targeted touch in typical and atypical populations.
Oxytocin enhances brain function in children with autism
Following intranasal administration of oxytocin (OT), we measured, via functional MRI, changes in brain activity during judgments of socially (Eyes) and nonsocially (Vehicles) meaningful pictures in 17 children with high-functioning autism spectrum disorder (ASD). OT increased activity in the striatum, the middle frontal gyrus, the medial prefrontal cortex, the right orbitofrontal cortex, and the left superior temporal sulcus. In the striatum, nucleus accumbens, left posterior superior temporal sulcus, and left premotor cortex, OT increased activity during social judgments and decreased activity during nonsocial judgments. Changes in salivary OT concentrations from baseline to 30 min postadministration were positively associated with increased activity in the right amygdala and orbitofrontal cortex during social vs. nonsocial judgments. OT may thus selectively have an impact on salience and hedonic evaluations of socially meaningful stimuli in children with ASD, and thereby facilitate social attunement. These findings further the development of a neurophysiological systems-level understanding of mechanisms by which OT may enhance social functioning in children with ASD.
Brain mechanisms for processing affective touch
Despite the crucial role of touch in social development, there is very little functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) research on brain mechanisms underlying social touch processing. The "skin as a social organ" hypothesis is supported by the discovery of C-tactile (CT) nerves that are present in hairy skin and project to the insular cortex. CT-fibers respond specifically well to slow, gentle touch such as that which occurs during close social interactions. Given the social significance of such touch researchers have proposed that the CT-system represents an evolutionarily conserved mechanism important for normative social development. However, it is currently unknown whether brain regions other than the insula are involved in processing CT-targeted touch. In the current fMRI study, we sought to characterize the brain regions involved in the perception of CT-supported affective touch. Twenty-two healthy adults received manual brush strokes to either the arm or palm. A direct contrast of the blood-oxygenation-level-dependent (BOLD) response to gentle brushing of the arm and palm revealed the involvement of a network of brain regions, in addition to the posterior insula, during CT-targeted affective touch to the arm. This network included areas known to be involved in social perception and social cognition, including the right posterior superior temporal sulcus and the medial prefrontal cortex (mPFC)/dorso anterior cingulate cortex (dACC). Connectivity analyses with an mPFC/dACC seed revealed coactivation with the left insula and amygdala during arm touch. These findings characterize a network of brain regions beyond the insula involved in coding CT-targeted affective touch.