Association for Behavior Analysis International

The Association for Behavior Analysis International® (ABAI) is a nonprofit membership organization with the mission to contribute to the well-being of society by developing, enhancing, and supporting the growth and vitality of the science of behavior analysis through research, education, and practice.


33rd Annual Convention; San Diego, CA; 2007

Event Details

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B. F. Skinner Lecture Series Paper Session #38
CE Offered: BACB

The Brain behind Behavior: Etiologies of Social Dysfunction in Autism

Saturday, May 26, 2007
1:30 PM–2:20 PM
Douglas C
Area: DDA; Domain: Applied Research
CE Instructor: Karen Pierce, Ph.D.
Chair: Mark R. Dixon (Southern Illinois University)
KAREN PIERCE (University of California, San Diego)
Dr. Karen Pierce One of the most striking features of autism is the failure to develop or to understand complex social relationships. The overarching goal of Dr. Pierce’s research program is to elucidate the neural underpinnings of these social deficits in patients with autism. Her studies have utilized several approaches, including functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), electroencephalography (EEG), and behavioral assays. Dr. Pierce has been awarded several research grants including those from National Institute of Mental Health and the Organization for Autism Research. She has also received an Autism Society of America Research Award and a University of California, San Diego Chancellors Research Award in recognition of her outstanding work. Dr. Pierce serves as an ad-hoc reviewer for well-regarded journals such as Archives of General Psychiatry and Brain. Dr. Pierce has published extensively in a wide range of areas from behavioral treatment to brain dynamics in autism. Her functional imaging work was previously highlighted in Time Magazine (May, 2002). She is an invited speaker, both nationally and internationally, as an expert on the pathogenesis of autism. Her current research interests include studies aimed at detecting autism at the earliest ages possible. Such studies will bring the field of autism research closer to finding a cure.

New research has shown that a baby that will eventually develop autism begins the first months of his life with seemingly normal social behavior; he smiles and coos and appears indistinguishable from other children. In fact, two new prospective studies followed infants at risk for autism (by virtue of having an older sibling with the disorder) from birth into toddlerhood and found no differences in social or language behavior from normally developing infants during the first six months of life (Zwaigenbaum, et al., 2005; Landa, et al., 2006). By the time infants were one year old, however, signs of autism that included increased passivity and abnormal attention and language development were in evidence. These findings are consistent with retrospective studies that have shown reduced responding to name and abnormal social interaction skills at the first birthday parties of infants later diagnosed as autistic. What has gone wrong in the developing brains of children with autism? Despite over 60 years of close scientific scrutiny, this essential question remains unanswered. While social behavior is complex and relies on the normal development of a host of systems relating to attention, language, and emotion processing, it also relies heavily on the normal development of face processing. Functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) is a non-invasive technique that capitalizes on the fact that rates of blood flow change in the brain when humans engage in a particular task (e.g., a math problem) or activity (e.g., daydreaming). fMRI as a research tool has been used extensively to study face processing in autism. Most studies focus on the fusiform gyrus, a brain region in the temporal lobe that contains an area in the middle lateral portion that responds strongly to faces (i.e., the Fusiform Face Area, or FFA). If functional responding in the fusiform appears abnormal in autism, it would not be surprising that higher-order cognitive functions that rely on the ability to interpret a face, such as theory of mind and emotion perception, would also be impaired. It is thus essential that this first step in understanding the social mind of autistic individuals, that is, testing the ability to decode information from a face, be tested thoroughly. This presentation will discuss the following: 1. The development of social behavior, particularly face perception, in normally developing infants and children; 2. Face processing fMRI research with adults and children with auti




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