JOURNAL ARTICLE

Impaired learning of social compared to monetary rewards in autism

Alice Lin, Antonio Rangel, Ralph Adolphs
Frontiers in Neuroscience 2012, 6: 143
23060743
A leading hypothesis to explain the social dysfunction in people with autism spectrum disorders (ASD) is that they exhibit a deficit in reward processing and motivation specific to social stimuli. However, there have been few direct tests of this hypothesis to date. Here we used an instrumental reward learning task that contrasted learning with social rewards (pictures of positive and negative faces) against learning with monetary reward (winning and losing money). The two tasks were structurally identical except for the type of reward, permitting direct comparisons. We tested 10 high-functioning people with ASD (7M, 3F) and 10 healthy controls who were matched on gender, age, and education. We found no significant differences between the two groups in terms of overall ability behaviorally to discriminate positive from negative slot machines, reaction-times, and valence ratings, However, there was a specific impairment in the ASD group in learning to choose social rewards, compared to monetary rewards: they had a significantly lower cumulative number of choices of the most rewarding social slot machine, and had a significantly slower initial learning rate for the socially rewarding slot machine, compared to the controls. The findings show a deficit in reward learning in ASD that is greater for social rewards than for monetary rewards, and support the hypothesis of a disproportionate impairment in social reward processing in ASD.

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