Neural Bases of Emotional Language Processing in Individuals with and without Autism

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A fundamental aspect of successful social interactions is the ability to

accurately infer others’ verbal communication, often including information related to

the speaker’s feelings. Autism spectrum disorder is characterized by language and

social-affective impairments, and also aberrant functional neural responses to

socially-relevant stimuli. The main objective of the current research was to examine

the behavioral and neural effects of making affective inferences from language

lacking overt prosody or explicit emotional words in individuals with and without

autism. In neurotypical individuals, the current data are consistent with previous

studies showing that verbal emotional stimuli enhances activation of brain regions

generally responsive to discourse, and also “social-affective” brain regions,

specifically medial/orbital frontal regions, bilateral middle temporal areas, temporal

parietal junction/superior temporal gyri and pCC/PC. Moreover, these regions

respond differentially to positive and negative valence, most clearly in the medial

frontal area. Further, results suggest that mentalizing alone does not account for the

differences between emotional and neutral stories, as all of our stories required

similar inferencing of the feelings of the protagonist. In autism, there is general

agreement that the neurodevelopmental disorder is marked by impairments in

pragmatic language understandings, emotional processes, and the ability to

“mentalize,” others’ thoughts, intentions and beliefs. However, findings are mixed

regarding the precise nature of emotional language understandings. Results of the

present study suggest that autistic individuals are able to make language-based

emotional inferences, and that like neurotypical controls, social-affective brain

regions show task-related facilitation effects for emotional compared to neutral

valence. However, the neural activations in the autism group were generally greater

than controls, especially in response to emotion. Additionally, results showed greater

difficulty with incongruent judgments in participants with autism. Together, these

findings represent a first step toward revealing social-affective abilities in the

language context in autism, despite irregular brain response. Such understandings are

critical to generating effective intervention strategies and therapeutic practices for

autistic individuals and their families. For remediation to be most beneficial, one must understand and utilize areas of skill, and leverage those to positively impact deficits.