Open Access Research

Social and monetary reward processing in autism spectrum disorders

Sonja Delmonte12*, Joshua H Balsters2, Jane McGrath12, Jacqueline Fitzgerald12, Sean Brennan1, Andrew J Fagan3 and Louise Gallagher1

Author Affiliations

1 Department of Psychiatry, Trinity College Dublin, Dublin, 2, Ireland

2 Trinity College Institute of Neuroscience, Trinity College Dublin, Dublin, 2, Ireland

3 Centre for Advanced Medical Imaging (CAMI), St. James’s Hospital / Trinity College, Dublin, 8, Ireland

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Molecular Autism 2012, 3:7  doi:10.1186/2040-2392-3-7

Published: 26 September 2012

Abstract

Background

Social motivation theory suggests that deficits in social reward processing underlie social impairments in autism spectrum disorders (ASD). However, the extent to which abnormalities in reward processing generalize to other classes of stimuli remains unresolved. The aim of the current study was to examine if reward processing abnormalities in ASD are specific to social stimuli or can be generalized to other classes of reward. Additionally, we sought to examine the results in the light of behavioral impairments in ASD.

Methods

Participants performed adapted versions of the social and monetary incentive delay tasks. Data from 21 unmedicated right-handed male participants with ASD and 21 age- and IQ-matched controls were analyzed using a factorial design to examine the blood-oxygen-level-dependent (BOLD) response during the anticipation and receipt of both reward types.

Results

Behaviorally, the ASD group showed less of a reduction in reaction time (RT) for rewarded compared to unrewarded trials than the control group. In terms of the fMRI results, there were no significant group differences in reward circuitry during reward anticipation. During the receipt of rewards, there was a significant interaction between group and reward type in the left dorsal striatum (DS). The ASD group showed reduced activity in the DS compared to controls for social rewards but not monetary rewards and decreased activation for social rewards compared to monetary rewards. Controls showed no significant difference between the two reward types. Increased activation in the DS during social reward processing was associated with faster response times for rewarded trials, compared to unrewarded trials, in both groups. This is in line with behavioral results indicating that the ASD group showed less of a reduction in RT for rewarded compared to unrewarded trials. Additionally, de-activation to social rewards was associated with increased repetitive behavior in ASD.

Conclusions

In line with social motivation theory, the ASD group showed reduced activation, compared to controls, during the receipt of social rewards in the DS. Groups did not differ significantly during the processing of monetary rewards. BOLD activation in the DS, during social reward processing, was associated with behavioral impairments in ASD.

Keywords:
Autism; Reward; Social motivation; Striatum; Functional magnetic resonance imaging; fMRI