Comparing fNIRS-Based Cortical Activation Patterns during Interpersonal Synchrony Tasks Between Children with and without Autism

Thursday, May 11, 2017: 5:30 PM-7:00 PM
Golden Gate Ballroom (Marriott Marquis Hotel)
M. Hoffman1, S. Trost1, M. Culotta1 and A. N. Bhat2, (1)Physical Therapy, University of Delaware, Newark, DE, (2)University of Delaware, Newark, DE
Background: The long-term goal of this research is to determine neurobiomarkers of imitation/interpersonal synchrony in children with and without Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) to explain the positive effects of imitation/synchrony-based interventions. Specifically, we will explain the neural basis for how socially embedded, synchronous, whole body movements may facilitate social communication skills in children with ASD.

Mirror Neuron Systems (MNS) in the frontal, parietal, and temporal cortices are active during action observation, production, and imitation (Iacoboni, 2005). The majority of the literature has described MNS dysfunction in children with ASD using fMRI techniques while performing hand motions (Dapretto et al., 2006). For the first time, we will be using functional near-infrared spectroscopy (fNIRS), a novel neuroimaging tool to assess changes in MNS activation across naturalistic interpersonal synchrony tasks.

Objectives: We aim to compare MNS activation across the frontal, parietal, and temporal cortices between children with and without ASD during naturalistic, interpersonal synchrony tasks.

Methods:  12 children with and without ASD between 6 and 12 years of age and 12 healthy adults were seated in front of an adult social partner while they were presented with a circle of blocks. The task involved cleaning up the blocks into a container in 3 ways (Egetemeir et al., 2011): a) Watch (W): the child observed the adult complete the cleanup activity, b) Do (D): the child cleaned up all blocks on their own, and c) Together (T): the child cleaned up all the blocks near him/her along with the adult by matching the block location and color. The cleanup sequence was kept random by the adult to promote social monitoring. 24 trials were collected, 8 per condition using a rnadomized block design. The oxy hemoglobin response of the fNIRS signal was further analyzed to study differences in activation patterns between tasks, between hemispheres, and between the 3 regions of interest.

Results: Our preliminary data suggest more complex MNS activation during the Together (joint action) condition compared to the Do (solo action) or Watch (observation) tasks. Specifically, the temporal cortices showed greater activation during the watch and together conditions compared to the Do condition. In contrast, the fronto-parietal cortices were more active during the Do and Together conditions compared to the Watch condition.

Conclusions: Our results support the use of fNIRS technologies to study cortical activation patterns in children with and without ASD. In the long-term, we will examine the effects of imitation/synchrony-based interventions in children with ASD using MNS-based cortical activation as a neurobiomarker.