Action viewing and language in adolescents with autism spectrum disorder

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Experimental Brain Research


The mirror neuron system consists of fronto-parietal regions and responds to both goal-directed action execution and observation. The broader action observation network is specifically involved in observation of actions and is thought to play a role in understanding the goals of the motor act, the intention of others, empathy, and language. Many, but not all, studies have found mirror neuron system or action observation network dysfunction in autism spectrum disorder. The objective of this study was to use observation of a goal-directed action fMRI paradigm to examine the action observation network in autism spectrum disorder and to determine whether fronto-parietal activation is associated with language ability. Adolescents with autism spectrum disorder (n = 23) were compared to typically developing adolescents (n = 20), 11–17 years. Overall, there were no group differences in activation, however, the autism spectrum group with impaired expressive language (n = 13) had significantly reduced inferior frontal and inferior parietal activation during action viewing. In controls, right supramarginal gyrus activation was associated with higher expressive language; bilateral supramarginal and left pars opercularis activation was associated with better verbal-gesture integration. Results suggest that action-observation network dysfunction may characterize a subgroup of individuals with autism spectrum disorder with expressive language deficits. Therefore, interventions that target this dysfunctional network may improve expressive language in this autism spectrum subgroup. Future treatment studies should individualize therapeutic approaches based on brain-behavior relationships.

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