Neurocognitive Mechanisms of Social Inferences in Typical and Autistic Adolescents

  • Gabriela Rosenblau
    Address correspondence to Gabriela Rosenblau, Ph.D.,
    Center for Translational Developmental Neuroscience, Yale Child Study Center, Yale University, New Haven, Connecticut

    Autism and Neurodevelopmental Disorders Institute, George Washington University, Washington, DC

    Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences, George Washington University, Washington DC
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  • Christoph W. Korn
    Institute for Systems Neuroscience, University Medical Center Hamburg-Eppendorf, Hamburg, Germany
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  • Abigail Dutton
    Center for Translational Developmental Neuroscience, Yale Child Study Center, Yale University, New Haven, Connecticut
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  • Daeyeol Lee
    Zanvyl Krieger Mind/Brain Institute, Department of Neuroscience, Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences, Johns Hopkins University, Maryland
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  • Kevin A. Pelphrey
    Center for Translational Developmental Neuroscience, Yale Child Study Center, Yale University, New Haven, Connecticut

    Department of Neurology, University of Virginia, Charlottesville, Virginia
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      Many of our efforts in social interactions are dedicated to learning about others. Adolescents with autism have core deficits in social learning, but a mechanistic understanding of these deficits and how they relate to neural development is lacking. The present study aimed to specify how adolescents with and without autism represent and acquire social knowledge and how these processes are implemented in neural activity.


      Typically developing adolescents (n = 26) and adolescents with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) (n = 20) rated in the magnetic resonance scanner how much 3 peers liked a variety of items and received trial-by-trial feedback about the peers’ actual preference ratings. In a separate study, we established the preferences of a new sample of adolescents (N = 99), used to examine population preference structures. Using computational models, we tested whether participants in the magnetic resonance study relied on preference structures during learning and how model predictions were implemented in brain activity.


      Typically developing adolescents relied on average population preferences and prediction error updating. Importantly, prediction error updating was scaled by the similarity between items. In contrast, preferences of adolescents with ASD were best described by a No-Learning model that relied only on the participant’s own preferences for each item. Model predictions were encoded in neural activity. Typically developing adolescents encoded prediction errors in the putamen, and adolescents with ASD showed greater encoding of own preferences in the angular gyrus.


      We specified how adolescents represent and update social knowledge during learning. Our findings indicate that adolescents with ASD rely only on their own preferences when making social inferences.


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      Linked Article

      • Studying Social Inferences in and Across Social Brains
        Biological Psychiatry: Cognitive Neuroscience and NeuroimagingVol. 6Issue 8
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          Psychiatric disorders are ubiquitously characterized by social interaction difficulties, which has led to the suggestion that they could be construed as “disorders of social interaction” (1). Social impairments, indeed, can be found transdiagnostically and may precede the onset of other symptoms, but can also be a primary characteristic, such as in the case of developmental disorders. Developmental trajectories vary significantly across individuals and are shaped by both internal and external factors that affect social learning and its outcomes.
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