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BACKGROUND - Restricted interests are a class of repetitive behavior in autism spectrum disorders (ASD) whose intensity and narrow focus often contribute to significant interference with daily functioning. While numerous neuroimaging studies have investigated executive circuits as putative neural substrates of repetitive behavior, recent work implicates affective neural circuits in restricted interests. We sought to explore the role of affective neural circuits and determine how restricted interests are distinguished from hobbies or interests in typical development.
METHODS - We compared a group of children with ASD to a typically developing (TD) group of children with strong interests or hobbies, employing parent report, an operant behavioral task, and functional imaging with personalized stimuli based on individual interests.
RESULTS - While performance on the operant task was similar between the two groups, parent report of intensity and interference of interests was significantly higher in the ASD group. Both the ASD and TD groups showed increased BOLD response in widespread affective neural regions to the pictures of their own interest. When viewing pictures of other children's interests, the TD group showed a similar pattern, whereas BOLD response in the ASD group was much more limited. Increased BOLD response in the insula and anterior cingulate cortex distinguished the ASD from the TD group, and parent report of the intensity and interference with daily life of the child's restricted interest predicted insula response.
CONCLUSIONS - While affective neural network response and operant behavior are comparable in typical and restricted interests, the narrowness of focus that clinically distinguishes restricted interests in ASD is reflected in more interference in daily life and aberrantly enhanced insula and anterior cingulate response to individuals' own interests in the ASD group. These results further support the involvement of affective neural networks in repetitive behaviors in ASD.
© 2013 The Authors. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry © 2013 Association for Child and Adolescent Mental Health.