Drs. Evie Malaia (Communicative Disorders, A&S) and Firat Soylu (Educational Psychology, College of Ed) received funding from the Alabama Life Research Institute (ALRI) Pilot Project Program, for a project entitled “Brain pathways for perception-to-cognition in ASD: Reconciling divergent evidence from computational and emotional behavior”.
The project will inform a NIH R01 application, responding to a program announcement for research on autism spectrum disorders. Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is a neurodevelopmental disorder that affects sensorimotor, cognitive, and socio-communicative abilities throughout the lifespan. Social deficits observed in ASD are linked to impairments in brain systems that support theory of mind: one’s ability to model mental states of other individuals based on observed physical features and behaviors, which requires recruitment of sensorimotor simulation systems. While sensorimotor simulations are hypothesized to underlie all components of higher cognition, these components are not affected to equal measure in ASD. For example, while ability to recognize and interpret emotional states is severely impaired in those on autism spectrum, number processing, which to some extent uses overlapping sensorimotor simulation systems, is often enhanced (the “Rainman phenomenon”). Drs. Malaia and Soylu will investigate neurobiological bases of sensorimotor simulations in emotion recognition vs. number processing in individuals with ASD, and their neurotypical peers. ASD is increasingly understood to be based on atypical signal transfer among brain networks. The study will form a foundation for re-framing the “theory of mind” hypothesis for autism in terms of domain-specific sensorimotor resonance. It will also provide pilot hypothesis testing for a Big Data investigation of sensorimotor resonance in specific domains of higher cognition in ASD and typically developing individuals using a national database of functional neuroimaging.