Brigitte Naughton

Staff Writer


A team of UCSB and Yale researchers recently used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to view increased brain function in autistic children who received the behavioral therapy Pivotal Response Treatment.

Pivotal Response Treatment (PRT) is a play-based, child-initiated treatment for autism that aims to improve communication and social behavior in children. Using an fMRI on the subjects before and after the therapy, researchers noticed increased blood flow and activity in areas of the brain that process social stimulation. Their paper “Neural Mechanisms of Improvements in Social Motivation After Pivotal Response Treatment: Two Case Studies” was published in January in the Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders.

Pamela Ventola, an associate research scientist in the Child Study Center at the Yale School of Medicine and study co-author of the paper, said PRT targets the “pivotal” areas of brain development that determine social competence.

“PRT is a behaviorally based treatment approach, meaning that we devise discreet behavior towards skills that we want children to develop,” Ventola said. “The children use these skills through play conversation and very fun and motivational tasks.”

The study focused on two 5-year-old children with autism, with each receiving PRT for eight-to-10 hours per week for four months. An fMRI performed before and after therapy revealed significant increases in brain activity in areas that process and react to social cues.

Avery Voos, a first-year graduate student at UCSB’s Koegel Autism Center and a lead author of the study, said that biological and nonbiological stimuli activate different regions of the brain. During the fMRI, the children watched images made from dots of light on a screen. Biological images included walking stick figures, while nonbiological images presented random, nonorganized motion.

“What our study showed is that after treatment, the kids showed increased activation in key social areas of the brain that are typically utilized by typically developing kids when processing the same social stimuli,” Voos said. “Our stimuli were human motion because biological motion is a very low level social stimuli that our brain codes as different from other motion.”

According to Ventola, the fMRI tracked blood flow to different regions of the brain to analyze the patient’s ability to distinguish between the realistic, biological images versus the artificial, nonbiological images.

“We showed these same video clips before and after the treatment. We know how people respond to looking at biological motion, and we found that children with autism have brains that do not activate to the biological activation in the same way that a normally developing person does,” Ventola said. “After treatment, we were seeing activation in the brain that normally developing children should show and they recognized biological motion.”

Yale University will continue to use PRT and fMRI analysis with a larger group of children in hope of advancing medical treatment for autism during development.


A version of this article appeared on page 12 of February 26th, 2013’s print edition of the Nexus