Neural correlates of pragmatic language comprehension in autism spectrum disorders
Difficulties with pragmatic aspects of communication are universal across individuals with autism spectrum disorders (ASDs). Here we focused on an aspect of pragmatic language comprehension that is relevant to social interaction in daily life: the integration of speaker characteristics inferred from the voice with the content of a message. Using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), we examined the neural correlates of the integration of voice-based inferences about the speaker's age, gender or social background, and sentence content in adults with ASD and matched control participants. Relative to the control group, the ASD group showed increased activation in right inferior frontal gyrus (RIFG; Brodmann area 47) for speaker-incongruent sentences compared to speaker-congruent sentences. Given that both groups performed behaviourally at a similar level on a debriefing interview outside the scanner, the increased activation in RIFG for the ASD group was interpreted as being compensatory in nature. It presumably reflects spill-over processing from the language dominant left hemisphere due to higher task demands faced by the participants with ASD when integrating speaker characteristics and the content of a spoken sentence. Furthermore, only the control group showed decreased activation for speaker-incongruent relative to speaker-congruent sentences in right ventral medial prefrontal cortex (vMPFC; Brodmann area 10), including right anterior cingulate cortex (ACC; Brodmann area 24/32). Since vMPFC is involved in self-referential processing related to judgments and inferences about self and others, the absence of such a modulation in vMPFC activation in the ASD group possibly points to atypical default self-referential mental activity in ASD. Our results show that in ASD compensatory mechanisms are necessary in implicit, low-level inferential processes in spoken language understanding. This indicates that pragmatic language problems in ASD are not restricted to high-level inferential processes, but encompass the most basic aspects of pragmatic language processing.
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