A quarterly publication of the Autism Research Institute

The Autism Research Review International is quarterly publication of the Autism Research Institute

Spring, 2018 | Number 2, Volume 32

Virtual reality training program improves social skills, results in brain changes in adults with ASD

Researchers testing the results of a virtual reality program designed to teach social skills to adults with autism spectrum disorders (ASD) say that their findings challenge the notion that it is too late at this age for interventions to change the brain significantly. 

Daniel Yang and colleagues enrolled 17 young adults with high-functioning autism in a behavioral intervention called Virtual Reality-Social Cognition Training (VR-SCT). The individuals participated in the training for five weeks, completing a total of 10 hours of training. During the intervention, they used computer avatars to interact with a clinician in lifelike social scenarios, receiving real-time feedback as they engaged in job interviews, dates, or other age-appropriate social activities. They underwent functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scans before and after the intervention. 

Tests showed improvements in emotion recognition and “theory of mind” (the understanding that other people have thoughts and feelings) following the intervention. The researchers say they identified three significant brain changes that correlated with changes in social behavior: 

—The right posterior superior temporal sulcus, a hub for socio-cognitive processing, showed increased activation to social versus nonsocial stimuli in individuals who had greater gains on a theory-of-mind measure.

 —The left inferior frontal gyrus, a region for socio-emotional processing, showed a decrease in activation to social versus nonsocial stimuli that correlated with individual gains in emotion recognition. The researchers say, “It has been reported that there is a right- versus left-hemisphere advantageous difference in face recognition and processing emotional stimuli. Although speculative, it is possible that to successfully process emotional stimuli, one needs to shift from left-hemisphere processing to right-hemisphere processing, and decreasing the use of implicated regions on the left hemisphere may contribute to better emotion recognition. Our result is consistent with this possibility.” 

—The left superior parietal lobule, a region involved in visual attention, showed significantly decreased activation to nonsocial versus social stimuli. The researchers note that heightened attention to non-social contingencies is considered to contribute to the social difficulties of individuals with ASD. 

The researchers say, “These findings extend the window of critical time periods where individuals with ASD may be able to benefit from even short-term (10 hours) intervention focused on commonly encountered social exchanges during young adulthood… Such interventions may not only improve social cognition skills at a critical stage when adults with ASD are needing to develop social skills that support independence, but also strengthen the underlying brain networks to support higher social functioning capacity.” 

They conclude, “There is currently limited intervention research in adults with ASD. This study moves the field one step closer to the goal of providing scientifically based precise intervention for individuals with ASD into adulthood.”


Citations

“Neural mechanisms of behavioral change in young adults with high-functioning autism receiving virtual reality social cognition training: a pilot study,” Y. J. Daniel Yang, Tandra Allen, Sebiha M. Abdullahi, Kevin A. Pelphrey, Fred R. Volkmar, and Sandra B. Chapman, Autism Research, March 18, 2018 (open access). Address:  Daniel Yang, Autism and Neurodevelopmental Disorders Institute, The George Washington University and Children’s National Health System, 2115 G Street, NW, Washington, DC 20052, [email protected]

—and—

 “Behavior gains possible in adults with autism, study finds,” Michelle Diament, Disability Scoop, April 10, 2018.