New research may help explain why individuals with autism often fail to grasp
the social and emotional elements of speech.
Scientists say they’ve spotted a weak connection in children with autism
between the area of the brain tasked with responding to voices and the brain
structures that release dopamine in response to rewards. They also found a
disconnect between the brain’s voice processor and the area responsible for
detecting emotional cues.
As a result, the sound of the human voice may not be pleasurable to those
with the developmental disorder, researchers report in a study published this week in
the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
“It is likely that children with autism don’t attend to voices because they
are not rewarding or emotionally interesting, impacting the development of their
language and social communication skills,” said Vinod Menon, a psychiatry and
behavioral sciences professor at Stanford University and a senior author of the
For the research, Menon and his colleagues compared fMRI brain scans from 20
kids with high-functioning autism to those from 19 typically developing
children. The more impaired the brain connections were in the children with
autism, the more severe their communication difficulties were, the study
“The human voice is a very important sound; it not only conveys meaning but
also provides critical emotional information to a child,” said the study’s lead
author, Daniel Abrams of Stanford University. “We are the first to show that
this insensitivity may originate from impaired reward circuitry in the
The finding could lead to the development of new treatments for autism,