Restricted and repetitive behaviors, and a pronounced preference for behavioral and environmental consistency, are distinctive characteristics of autism spectrum disorder (ASD). Alterations in frontostriatal circuitry that supports flexible behavior might underlie this behavioral impairment. In an functional magnetic resonance imaging study of 17 individuals with ASD, and 23 age-, gender- and IQ-matched typically developing control participants, reversal learning tasks were used to assess behavioral flexibility as participants switched from one learned response choice to a different response choice when task contingencies changed. When choice outcome after reversal was uncertain, the ASD group demonstrated reduced activation in both frontal cortex and ventral striatum, in the absence of task performance differences. When the outcomes of novel responses were certain, there was no difference in brain activation between groups. Reduced activation in frontal cortex and ventral striatum suggest problems in decision-making and response planning, and in processing reinforcement cues, respectively. These processes, and their integration, are essential for flexible behavior. Alterations in these systems may therefore contribute to a rigid adherence to preferred behavioral patterns in individuals with an ASD. These findings provide an additional impetus for the use of reversal learning paradigms as a translational model for treatment development targeting the domain of restricted and repetitive behaviors in ASD.
ASJC Scopus subject areas
- Psychiatry and Mental health
- Cellular and Molecular Neuroscience
- Biological Psychiatry