Underconnectivity between voice-selective cortex and reward circuitry in children with autism

Daniel A. Abrams, Charles J. Lynch, Katherine M. Cheng, Jennifer Phillips, Kaustubh Supekar, Srikanth Ryali, Lucina Q. Uddin, Vinod Menon

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

127 Scopus citations


Individuals with autism spectrum disorders (ASDs) often show insensitivity to the human voice, a deficit that is thought to play a key role in communication deficits in this population. The social motivation theory of ASD predicts that impaired function of reward and emotional systems impedes children with ASD from actively engaging with speech. Here we explore this theory by investigating distributed brain systems underlying human voice perception in children with ASD. Using resting-state functional MRI data acquired from 20 children with ASD and 19 age- and intelligence quotientmatched typically developing children, we examined intrinsic functional connectivity of voice-selective bilateral posterior superior temporal sulcus (pSTS). Children with ASD showed a striking pattern of underconnectivity between left-hemisphere pSTS and distributed nodes of the dopaminergic reward pathway, including bilateral ventral tegmental areas and nucleus accumbens, left-hemisphere insula, orbitofrontal cortex, and ventromedial prefrontal cortex. Children with ASD also showed underconnectivity between righthemisphere pSTS, a region known for processing speech prosody, and the orbitofrontal cortex and amygdala, brain regions critical for emotion-related associative learning. The degree of underconnectivity between voice-selective cortex and reward pathways predicted symptom severity for communication deficits in children with ASD. Our results suggest that weak connectivity of voiceselective cortex and brain structures involved in reward and emotion may impair the ability of children with ASD to experience speech as a pleasurable stimulus, thereby impacting language and social skill development in this population. Our study provides support for the social motivation theory of ASD.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)12060-12065
Number of pages6
JournalProceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America
Issue number29
StatePublished - Jul 16 2013
Externally publishedYes


  • Auditory Cortex
  • Nucleus Accumbens

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General


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