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Aberrant emotional prosody circuitry predicts social communication impairments in children with autism

Published:October 12, 2022DOI:https://doi.org/10.1016/j.bpsc.2022.09.016

      Abstract

      Background

      Emotional prosody provides acoustical cues that reflect a communication partner’s emotional state and is crucial for successful social interactions. Many children with autism have deficits in recognizing emotions from voices, however the neural basis for these impairments is unknown. Here we examine brain circuit features underlying emotional prosody processing deficits and their relation to clinical symptoms of autism.

      Methods

      We used an event-related fMRI task to measure neural activity and connectivity during processing of sad and happy emotional prosody and neutral speech in 22 children with autism and 21 matched control children (7-12 years old). We employed functional connectivity analyses to test competing theoretical accounts which attribute emotional prosody impairments to either sensory processing deficits in auditory cortex or theory of mind deficits instantiated in temporoparietal junction (TPJ).

      Results

      Children with autism showed specific behavioral impairments for recognizing emotions from voices. They also showed aberrant functional connectivity between voice-sensitive auditory cortex and bilateral TPJ during emotional prosody processing. Neural activity in bilateral TPJ during processing of both sad and happy emotional prosody stimuli was associated with social communication impairments in children with autism. In contrast, activity and decoding of emotional prosody in auditory cortex was comparable between autism and control groups and did not predict social communication impairments.

      Conclusions

      Our findings support a social-cognitive deficit model of autism by identifying a role for TPJ dysfunction during emotional prosody processing. Our study underscores the importance of “tuning in” to vocal-emotional cues for building social connections in children with autism.
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