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Sex differences in mental rotation and how they add to the understanding of autism.
PUBLISHED: 04-18-2015
The most consistent cognitive sex differences have been found in the visuo-spatial domain, using Mental Rotation (MR) tasks. Such sex differences have been suggested to bear implications on our understanding of autism spectrum disorders (ASD). However, it is still debated how the sex difference in MR performance relates to differences between individuals with ASD compared to typically developed control persons (TD). To provide a detailed exploration of sex differences in MR performance, we studied rotational (indicated by slopes) and non-rotational aspects (indicated by intercepts) of the MR task in TD individuals (total N = 50). Second-to-fourth digit length ratios (2D:4D) were measured to investigate the associations between prenatal testosterone and performance on MR tasks. Handedness was assessed by the use of the Edinburgh Handedness Inventory in order to examine the relation between handedness and MR performance. In addition, we investigated the relation of spatial to systemising abilities, both of which have been associated with sex differences and with ASD, employing the Intuitive Physics Test (IPT). Results showed a male advantage in rotational aspects of the MR task, which correlated with IPT results. These findings are in contrast to the MR performance of individuals with ASD who have been shown to outperform TD persons in the non-rotational aspects of the MR task. These results suggest that the differences in MR performance due to ASD are different from sex-related differences in TD persons, in other words, ASD is not a simple and continuous extension of the male cognitive profile into the psychopathological range as the extreme male brain hypothesis (EMB) of ASD would suggest.
Authors: Sarah H. Baum, Ryan A. Stevenson, Mark T. Wallace.
Published: 04-22-2015
In addition to impairments in social communication and the presence of restricted interests and repetitive behaviors, deficits in sensory processing are now recognized as a core symptom in autism spectrum disorder (ASD). Our ability to perceive and interact with the external world is rooted in sensory processing. For example, listening to a conversation entails processing the auditory cues coming from the speaker (speech content, prosody, syntax) as well as the associated visual information (facial expressions, gestures). Collectively, the “integration” of these multisensory (i.e., combined audiovisual) pieces of information results in better comprehension. Such multisensory integration has been shown to be strongly dependent upon the temporal relationship of the paired stimuli. Thus, stimuli that occur in close temporal proximity are highly likely to result in behavioral and perceptual benefits – gains believed to be reflective of the perceptual system's judgment of the likelihood that these two stimuli came from the same source. Changes in this temporal integration are expected to strongly alter perceptual processes, and are likely to diminish the ability to accurately perceive and interact with our world. Here, a battery of tasks designed to characterize various aspects of sensory and multisensory temporal processing in children with ASD is described. In addition to its utility in autism, this battery has great potential for characterizing changes in sensory function in other clinical populations, as well as being used to examine changes in these processes across the lifespan.
23 Related JoVE Articles!
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Combining Computer Game-Based Behavioural Experiments With High-Density EEG and Infrared Gaze Tracking
Authors: Keith J. Yoder, Matthew K. Belmonte.
Institutions: Cornell University, University of Chicago, Manesar, India.
Experimental paradigms are valuable insofar as the timing and other parameters of their stimuli are well specified and controlled, and insofar as they yield data relevant to the cognitive processing that occurs under ecologically valid conditions. These two goals often are at odds, since well controlled stimuli often are too repetitive to sustain subjects' motivation. Studies employing electroencephalography (EEG) are often especially sensitive to this dilemma between ecological validity and experimental control: attaining sufficient signal-to-noise in physiological averages demands large numbers of repeated trials within lengthy recording sessions, limiting the subject pool to individuals with the ability and patience to perform a set task over and over again. This constraint severely limits researchers' ability to investigate younger populations as well as clinical populations associated with heightened anxiety or attentional abnormalities. Even adult, non-clinical subjects may not be able to achieve their typical levels of performance or cognitive engagement: an unmotivated subject for whom an experimental task is little more than a chore is not the same, behaviourally, cognitively, or neurally, as a subject who is intrinsically motivated and engaged with the task. A growing body of literature demonstrates that embedding experiments within video games may provide a way between the horns of this dilemma between experimental control and ecological validity. The narrative of a game provides a more realistic context in which tasks occur, enhancing their ecological validity (Chaytor & Schmitter-Edgecombe, 2003). Moreover, this context provides motivation to complete tasks. In our game, subjects perform various missions to collect resources, fend off pirates, intercept communications or facilitate diplomatic relations. In so doing, they also perform an array of cognitive tasks, including a Posner attention-shifting paradigm (Posner, 1980), a go/no-go test of motor inhibition, a psychophysical motion coherence threshold task, the Embedded Figures Test (Witkin, 1950, 1954) and a theory-of-mind (Wimmer & Perner, 1983) task. The game software automatically registers game stimuli and subjects' actions and responses in a log file, and sends event codes to synchronise with physiological data recorders. Thus the game can be combined with physiological measures such as EEG or fMRI, and with moment-to-moment tracking of gaze. Gaze tracking can verify subjects' compliance with behavioural tasks (e.g. fixation) and overt attention to experimental stimuli, and also physiological arousal as reflected in pupil dilation (Bradley et al., 2008). At great enough sampling frequencies, gaze tracking may also help assess covert attention as reflected in microsaccades - eye movements that are too small to foveate a new object, but are as rapid in onset and have the same relationship between angular distance and peak velocity as do saccades that traverse greater distances. The distribution of directions of microsaccades correlates with the (otherwise) covert direction of attention (Hafed & Clark, 2002).
Neuroscience, Issue 46, High-density EEG, ERP, ICA, gaze tracking, computer game, ecological validity
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Straightforward Assay for Quantification of Social Avoidance in Drosophila melanogaster
Authors: Robert W. Fernandez, Marat Nurilov, Omar Feliciano, Ian S. McDonald, Anne F. Simon.
Institutions: Yale University, York College/CUNY, Western Ontario University.
Drosophila melanogaster is an emerging model to study different aspects of social interactions. For example, flies avoid areas previously occupied by stressed conspecifics due to an odorant released during stress known as the Drosophila stress odorant (dSO). Through the use of the T-maze apparatus, one can quantify the avoidance of the dSO by responder flies in a very affordable and robust assay. Conditions necessary to obtain a strong performance are presented here. A stressful experience is necessary for the flies to emit dSO, as well as enough emitter flies to cause a robust avoidance response to the presence of dSO. Genetic background, but not their group size, strongly altered the avoidance of the dSO by the responder flies. Canton-S and Elwood display a higher performance in avoiding the dSO than Oregon and Samarkand strains. This behavioral assay will allow identification of mechanisms underlying this social behavior, and the assessment of the influence of genes and environmental conditions on both emission and avoidance of the dSO. Such an assay can be included in batteries of simple diagnostic tests used to identify social deficiencies of mutants or environmental conditions of interest.
Neuroscience, Issue 94, social behavior, social avoidance, Drosophila melanogaster, Drosophila, Stress Odorant - dSO, T-maze apparatus, neurogenetics
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Protocol for Studying Extinction of Conditioned Fear in Naturally Cycling Female Rats
Authors: Lisa Y. Maeng, Kara K. Cover, Aaron J. Landau, Mohammed R. Milad, Kelimer Lebron-Milad.
Institutions: Massachusetts General Hospital, Harvard Medical School.
Extinction of conditioned fear has been extensively studied in male rodents. Recently, there have been an increasing number of studies indicating that neural mechanisms for certain behavioral tasks and response behaviors are different in females and males. Using females in research studies can represent a challenge because of the variation of gonadal hormones during their estrous cycle. This protocol describes well-established procedures that are useful in investigating the role of estrogen in fear extinction memory consolidation in female rats. Phase of the estrous cycle and exogenous estrogen administration prior to extinction training can influence extinction recall 24 hr later. The vaginal swabbing technique for estrous phase identification described here aids the examination and manipulation of naturally cycling gonadal hormones. The use of this basic rodent model may further delineate the mechanisms by which estrogen can modulate fear extinction memory in females.
Behavior, Issue 96, estrogen, fear extinction, sex differences, estradiol, proestrus, metestrus, female, PTSD, anxiety
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A Cognitive Paradigm to Investigate Interference in Working Memory by Distractions and Interruptions
Authors: Jacki Janowich, Jyoti Mishra, Adam Gazzaley.
Institutions: University of New Mexico, University of California, San Francisco, University of California, San Francisco, University of California, San Francisco.
Goal-directed behavior is often impaired by interference from the external environment, either in the form of distraction by irrelevant information that one attempts to ignore, or by interrupting information that demands attention as part of another (secondary) task goal. Both forms of external interference have been shown to detrimentally impact the ability to maintain information in working memory (WM). Emerging evidence suggests that these different types of external interference exert different effects on behavior and may be mediated by distinct neural mechanisms. Better characterizing the distinct neuro-behavioral impact of irrelevant distractions versus attended interruptions is essential for advancing an understanding of top-down attention, resolution of external interference, and how these abilities become degraded in healthy aging and in neuropsychiatric conditions. This manuscript describes a novel cognitive paradigm developed the Gazzaley lab that has now been modified into several distinct versions used to elucidate behavioral and neural correlates of interference, by to-be-ignored distractors versus to-be-attended interruptors. Details are provided on variants of this paradigm for investigating interference in visual and auditory modalities, at multiple levels of stimulus complexity, and with experimental timing optimized for electroencephalography (EEG) or functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) studies. In addition, data from younger and older adult participants obtained using this paradigm is reviewed and discussed in the context of its relationship with the broader literatures on external interference and age-related neuro-behavioral changes in resolving interference in working memory.
Behavior, Issue 101, Attention, interference, distraction, interruption, working memory, aging, multi-tasking, top-down attention, EEG, fMRI
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Practical Methodology of Cognitive Tasks Within a Navigational Assessment
Authors: Manon Robillard, Chantal Mayer-Crittenden, Annie Roy-Charland, Michèle Minor-Corriveau, Roxanne Bélanger.
Institutions: Laurentian University, Laurentian University.
This paper describes an approach for measuring navigation accuracy relative to cognitive skills. The methodology behind the assessment will thus be clearly outlined in a step-by-step manner. Navigational skills are important when trying to find symbols within a speech-generating device (SGD) that has a dynamic screen and taxonomical organization. The following skills have been found to impact children’s ability to find symbols when navigating within the levels of an SGD: sustained attention, categorization, cognitive flexibility, and fluid reasoning1,2. According to past studies, working memory was not correlated with navigation1,2. The materials needed for this method include a computerized tablet, an augmentative and alternative communication application, a booklet of symbols, and the Leiter International Performance Scale-Revised (Leiter-R)3. This method has been used in two previous studies. Robillard, Mayer-Crittenden, Roy-Charland, Minor-Corriveau and Bélanger1 assessed typically developing children, while Rondeau, Robillard and Roy-Charland2 assessed children and adolescents with a diagnosis of Autism Spectrum Disorder. The direct observation of this method will facilitate the replication of this study for researchers. It will also help clinicians that work with children who have complex communication needs to determine the children’s ability to navigate an SGD with taxonomical categorization.
Behavior, Issue 100, Augmentative and alternative communication, navigation, cognition, assessment, speech-language pathology, children
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Modulating Cognition Using Transcranial Direct Current Stimulation of the Cerebellum
Authors: Paul A. Pope.
Institutions: University of Birmingham.
Numerous studies have emerged recently that demonstrate the possibility of modulating, and in some cases enhancing, cognitive processes by exciting brain regions involved in working memory and attention using transcranial electrical brain stimulation. Some researchers now believe the cerebellum supports cognition, possibly via a remote neuromodulatory effect on the prefrontal cortex. This paper describes a procedure for investigating a role for the cerebellum in cognition using transcranial direct current stimulation (tDCS), and a selection of information-processing tasks of varying task difficulty, which have previously been shown to involve working memory, attention and cerebellar functioning. One task is called the Paced Auditory Serial Addition Task (PASAT) and the other a novel variant of this task called the Paced Auditory Serial Subtraction Task (PASST). A verb generation task and its two controls (noun and verb reading) were also investigated. All five tasks were performed by three separate groups of participants, before and after the modulation of cortico-cerebellar connectivity using anodal, cathodal or sham tDCS over the right cerebellar cortex. The procedure demonstrates how performance (accuracy, verbal response latency and variability) could be selectively improved after cathodal stimulation, but only during tasks that the participants rated as difficult, and not easy. Performance was unchanged by anodal or sham stimulation. These findings demonstrate a role for the cerebellum in cognition, whereby activity in the left prefrontal cortex is likely dis-inhibited by cathodal tDCS over the right cerebellar cortex. Transcranial brain stimulation is growing in popularity in various labs and clinics. However, the after-effects of tDCS are inconsistent between individuals and not always polarity-specific, and may even be task- or load-specific, all of which requires further study. Future efforts might also be guided towards neuro-enhancement in cerebellar patients presenting with cognitive impairment once a better understanding of brain stimulation mechanisms has emerged.
Behavior, Issue 96, Cognition, working memory, tDCS, cerebellum, brain stimulation, neuro-modulation, neuro-enhancement
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Operant Procedures for Assessing Behavioral Flexibility in Rats
Authors: Anne Marie Brady, Stan B. Floresco.
Institutions: St. Mary's College of Maryland, University of British Columbia.
Executive functions consist of multiple high-level cognitive processes that drive rule generation and behavioral selection. An emergent property of these processes is the ability to adjust behavior in response to changes in one’s environment (i.e., behavioral flexibility). These processes are essential to normal human behavior, and may be disrupted in diverse neuropsychiatric conditions, including schizophrenia, alcoholism, depression, stroke, and Alzheimer’s disease. Understanding of the neurobiology of executive functions has been greatly advanced by the availability of animal tasks for assessing discrete components of behavioral flexibility, particularly strategy shifting and reversal learning. While several types of tasks have been developed, most are non-automated, labor intensive, and allow testing of only one animal at a time. The recent development of automated, operant-based tasks for assessing behavioral flexibility streamlines testing, standardizes stimulus presentation and data recording, and dramatically improves throughput. Here, we describe automated strategy shifting and reversal tasks, using operant chambers controlled by custom written software programs. Using these tasks, we have shown that the medial prefrontal cortex governs strategy shifting but not reversal learning in the rat, similar to the dissociation observed in humans. Moreover, animals with a neonatal hippocampal lesion, a neurodevelopmental model of schizophrenia, are selectively impaired on the strategy shifting task but not the reversal task. The strategy shifting task also allows the identification of separate types of performance errors, each of which is attributable to distinct neural substrates. The availability of these automated tasks, and the evidence supporting the dissociable contributions of separate prefrontal areas, makes them particularly well-suited assays for the investigation of basic neurobiological processes as well as drug discovery and screening in disease models.
Behavior, Issue 96, executive function, behavioral flexibility, prefrontal cortex, strategy shifting, reversal learning, behavioral neuroscience, schizophrenia, operant
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How to Study Placebo Responses in Motion Sickness with a Rotation Chair Paradigm in Healthy Participants
Authors: Katja Weimer, Björn Horing, Eric R. Muth, Paul Enck.
Institutions: University Hospital Tübingen, Clemson University.
Placebo responses occur in every medical intervention when patients or participants expect to receive an effective treatment to relieve symptoms. However, underlying mechanisms of placebo responses are not fully understood. It has repeatedly been shown that placebo responses are associated with changes in neural activity but for many conditions it is unclear whether they also affect the target organ, such as the stomach in motion sickness. Therefore, we present a methodology for the multivariate assessment of placebo responses by subjective, behavioral and objective measures in motion sickness with a rotation chair paradigm. The physiological correlate of motion sickness is a shift in gastric myoelectrical activity towards tachygastria that can be recorded with electrogastrography. The presented study applied the so-called balanced placebo design (BPD) to investigate the effects of ginger compared to placebo and the effects of expectations by verbal information. However, the study revealed no significant main or interactional effects of ginger (as a drug) or information on outcome measures but showed interactions when sex of participants and experimenters are taken into considerations. We discuss limitations of the presented study and report modifications that were used in subsequent studies demonstrating placebo responses when rotation speed was lowered. In general, future placebo studies have to identify the appropriate target organ for the studied placebo responses and to apply the specific methods to assess the physiological correlates.
Neuroscience, Issue 94, motion sickness, nausea, placebo response, placebo effect, expectancy, electrogastrography, gastric myoelectric activity, rotation tolerance, balanced placebo design
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The Double-H Maze: A Robust Behavioral Test for Learning and Memory in Rodents
Authors: Robert D. Kirch, Richard C. Pinnell, Ulrich G. Hofmann, Jean-Christophe Cassel.
Institutions: University Hospital Freiburg, UMR 7364 Université de Strasbourg, CNRS, Neuropôle de Strasbourg.
Spatial cognition research in rodents typically employs the use of maze tasks, whose attributes vary from one maze to the next. These tasks vary by their behavioral flexibility and required memory duration, the number of goals and pathways, and also the overall task complexity. A confounding feature in many of these tasks is the lack of control over the strategy employed by the rodents to reach the goal, e.g., allocentric (declarative-like) or egocentric (procedural) based strategies. The double-H maze is a novel water-escape memory task that addresses this issue, by allowing the experimenter to direct the type of strategy learned during the training period. The double-H maze is a transparent device, which consists of a central alleyway with three arms protruding on both sides, along with an escape platform submerged at the extremity of one of these arms. Rats can be trained using an allocentric strategy by alternating the start position in the maze in an unpredictable manner (see protocol 1; §4.7), thus requiring them to learn the location of the platform based on the available allothetic cues. Alternatively, an egocentric learning strategy (protocol 2; §4.8) can be employed by releasing the rats from the same position during each trial, until they learn the procedural pattern required to reach the goal. This task has been proven to allow for the formation of stable memory traces. Memory can be probed following the training period in a misleading probe trial, in which the starting position for the rats alternates. Following an egocentric learning paradigm, rats typically resort to an allocentric-based strategy, but only when their initial view on the extra-maze cues differs markedly from their original position. This task is ideally suited to explore the effects of drugs/perturbations on allocentric/egocentric memory performance, as well as the interactions between these two memory systems.
Behavior, Issue 101, Double-H maze, spatial memory, procedural memory, consolidation, allocentric, egocentric, habits, rodents, video tracking system
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An Inexpensive, Scalable Behavioral Assay for Measuring Ethanol Sedation Sensitivity and Rapid Tolerance in Drosophila
Authors: Simran Sandhu, Arnavaz P. Kollah, Lara Lewellyn, Robin F. Chan, Mike Grotewiel.
Institutions: Virginia Commonwealth University, Virginia Commonwealth University.
Alcohol use disorder (AUD) is a serious health challenge. Despite a large hereditary component to AUD, few genes have been unambiguously implicated in their etiology. The fruit fly, Drosophila melanogaster, is a powerful model for exploring molecular-genetic mechanisms underlying alcohol-related behaviors and therefore holds great promise for identifying and understanding the function of genes that influence AUD. The use of the Drosophila model for these types of studies depends on the availability of assays that reliably measure behavioral responses to ethanol. This report describes an assay suitable for assessing ethanol sensitivity and rapid tolerance in flies. Ethanol sensitivity measured in this assay is influenced by the volume and concentration of ethanol used, a variety of previously reported genetic manipulations, and also the length of time the flies are housed without food immediately prior to testing. In contrast, ethanol sensitivity measured in this assay is not affected by the vigor of fly handling, sex of the flies, and supplementation of growth medium with antibiotics or live yeast. Three different methods for quantitating ethanol sensitivity are described, all leading to essentially indistinguishable ethanol sensitivity results. The scalable nature of this assay, combined with its overall simplicity to set-up and relatively low expense, make it suitable for small and large scale genetic analysis of ethanol sensitivity and rapid tolerance in Drosophila.
Neuroscience, Issue 98, ethanol, alcohol, behavior, sensitivity, Drosophila, fruit fly, assay
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Transferring Cognitive Tasks Between Brain Imaging Modalities: Implications for Task Design and Results Interpretation in fMRI Studies
Authors: Tracy Warbrick, Martina Reske, N. Jon Shah.
Institutions: Research Centre Jülich GmbH, Research Centre Jülich GmbH.
As cognitive neuroscience methods develop, established experimental tasks are used with emerging brain imaging modalities. Here transferring a paradigm (the visual oddball task) with a long history of behavioral and electroencephalography (EEG) experiments to a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) experiment is considered. The aims of this paper are to briefly describe fMRI and when its use is appropriate in cognitive neuroscience; illustrate how task design can influence the results of an fMRI experiment, particularly when that task is borrowed from another imaging modality; explain the practical aspects of performing an fMRI experiment. It is demonstrated that manipulating the task demands in the visual oddball task results in different patterns of blood oxygen level dependent (BOLD) activation. The nature of the fMRI BOLD measure means that many brain regions are found to be active in a particular task. Determining the functions of these areas of activation is very much dependent on task design and analysis. The complex nature of many fMRI tasks means that the details of the task and its requirements need careful consideration when interpreting data. The data show that this is particularly important in those tasks relying on a motor response as well as cognitive elements and that covert and overt responses should be considered where possible. Furthermore, the data show that transferring an EEG paradigm to an fMRI experiment needs careful consideration and it cannot be assumed that the same paradigm will work equally well across imaging modalities. It is therefore recommended that the design of an fMRI study is pilot tested behaviorally to establish the effects of interest and then pilot tested in the fMRI environment to ensure appropriate design, implementation and analysis for the effects of interest.
Behavior, Issue 91, fMRI, task design, data interpretation, cognitive neuroscience, visual oddball task, target detection
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EEG Mu Rhythm in Typical and Atypical Development
Authors: Raphael Bernier, Benjamin Aaronson, Anna Kresse.
Institutions: University of Washington, University of Washington.
Electroencephalography (EEG) is an effective, efficient, and noninvasive method of assessing and recording brain activity. Given the excellent temporal resolution, EEG can be used to examine the neural response related to specific behaviors, states, or external stimuli. An example of this utility is the assessment of the mirror neuron system (MNS) in humans through the examination of the EEG mu rhythm. The EEG mu rhythm, oscillatory activity in the 8-12 Hz frequency range recorded from centrally located electrodes, is suppressed when an individual executes, or simply observes, goal directed actions. As such, it has been proposed to reflect activity of the MNS. It has been theorized that dysfunction in the mirror neuron system (MNS) plays a contributing role in the social deficits of autism spectrum disorder (ASD). The MNS can then be noninvasively examined in clinical populations by using EEG mu rhythm attenuation as an index for its activity. The described protocol provides an avenue to examine social cognitive functions theoretically linked to the MNS in individuals with typical and atypical development, such as ASD. 
Medicine, Issue 86, Electroencephalography (EEG), mu rhythm, imitation, autism spectrum disorder, social cognition, mirror neuron system
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Brain Imaging Investigation of the Impairing Effect of Emotion on Cognition
Authors: Gloria Wong, Sanda Dolcos, Ekaterina Denkova, Rajendra Morey, Lihong Wang, Gregory McCarthy, Florin Dolcos.
Institutions: University of Alberta, University of Alberta, University of Illinois, Duke University , Duke University , VA Medical Center, Yale University, University of Illinois, University of Illinois.
Emotions can impact cognition by exerting both enhancing (e.g., better memory for emotional events) and impairing (e.g., increased emotional distractibility) effects (reviewed in 1). Complementing our recent protocol 2 describing a method that allows investigation of the neural correlates of the memory-enhancing effect of emotion (see also 1, 3-5), here we present a protocol that allows investigation of the neural correlates of the detrimental impact of emotion on cognition. The main feature of this method is that it allows identification of reciprocal modulations between activity in a ventral neural system, involved in 'hot' emotion processing (HotEmo system), and a dorsal system, involved in higher-level 'cold' cognitive/executive processing (ColdEx system), which are linked to cognitive performance and to individual variations in behavior (reviewed in 1). Since its initial introduction 6, this design has proven particularly versatile and influential in the elucidation of various aspects concerning the neural correlates of the detrimental impact of emotional distraction on cognition, with a focus on working memory (WM), and of coping with such distraction 7,11, in both healthy 8-11 and clinical participants 12-14.
Neuroscience, Issue 60, Emotion-Cognition Interaction, Cognitive/Emotional Interference, Task-Irrelevant Distraction, Neuroimaging, fMRI, MRI
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Eye Tracking Young Children with Autism
Authors: Noah J. Sasson, Jed T. Elison.
Institutions: University of Texas at Dallas, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
The rise of accessible commercial eye-tracking systems has fueled a rapid increase in their use in psychological and psychiatric research. By providing a direct, detailed and objective measure of gaze behavior, eye-tracking has become a valuable tool for examining abnormal perceptual strategies in clinical populations and has been used to identify disorder-specific characteristics1, promote early identification2, and inform treatment3. In particular, investigators of autism spectrum disorders (ASD) have benefited from integrating eye-tracking into their research paradigms4-7. Eye-tracking has largely been used in these studies to reveal mechanisms underlying impaired task performance8 and abnormal brain functioning9, particularly during the processing of social information1,10-11. While older children and adults with ASD comprise the preponderance of research in this area, eye-tracking may be especially useful for studying young children with the disorder as it offers a non-invasive tool for assessing and quantifying early-emerging developmental abnormalities2,12-13. Implementing eye-tracking with young children with ASD, however, is associated with a number of unique challenges, including issues with compliant behavior resulting from specific task demands and disorder-related psychosocial considerations. In this protocol, we detail methodological considerations for optimizing research design, data acquisition and psychometric analysis while eye-tracking young children with ASD. The provided recommendations are also designed to be more broadly applicable for eye-tracking children with other developmental disabilities. By offering guidelines for best practices in these areas based upon lessons derived from our own work, we hope to help other investigators make sound research design and analysis choices while avoiding common pitfalls that can compromise data acquisition while eye-tracking young children with ASD or other developmental difficulties.
Medicine, Issue 61, eye tracking, autism, neurodevelopmental disorders, toddlers, perception, attention, social cognition
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Portable Intermodal Preferential Looking (IPL): Investigating Language Comprehension in Typically Developing Toddlers and Young Children with Autism
Authors: Letitia R. Naigles, Andrea T. Tovar.
Institutions: University of Connecticut.
One of the defining characteristics of autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is difficulty with language and communication.1 Children with ASD's onset of speaking is usually delayed, and many children with ASD consistently produce language less frequently and of lower lexical and grammatical complexity than their typically developing (TD) peers.6,8,12,23 However, children with ASD also exhibit a significant social deficit, and researchers and clinicians continue to debate the extent to which the deficits in social interaction account for or contribute to the deficits in language production.5,14,19,25 Standardized assessments of language in children with ASD usually do include a comprehension component; however, many such comprehension tasks assess just one aspect of language (e.g., vocabulary),5 or include a significant motor component (e.g., pointing, act-out), and/or require children to deliberately choose between a number of alternatives. These last two behaviors are known to also be challenging to children with ASD.7,12,13,16 We present a method which can assess the language comprehension of young typically developing children (9-36 months) and children with autism.2,4,9,11,22 This method, Portable Intermodal Preferential Looking (P-IPL), projects side-by-side video images from a laptop onto a portable screen. The video images are paired first with a 'baseline' (nondirecting) audio, and then presented again paired with a 'test' linguistic audio that matches only one of the video images. Children's eye movements while watching the video are filmed and later coded. Children who understand the linguistic audio will look more quickly to, and longer at, the video that matches the linguistic audio.2,4,11,18,22,26 This paradigm includes a number of components that have recently been miniaturized (projector, camcorder, digitizer) to enable portability and easy setup in children's homes. This is a crucial point for assessing young children with ASD, who are frequently uncomfortable in new (e.g., laboratory) settings. Videos can be created to assess a wide range of specific components of linguistic knowledge, such as Subject-Verb-Object word order, wh-questions, and tense/aspect suffixes on verbs; videos can also assess principles of word learning such as a noun bias, a shape bias, and syntactic bootstrapping.10,14,17,21,24 Videos include characters and speech that are visually and acoustically salient and well tolerated by children with ASD.
Medicine, Issue 70, Neuroscience, Psychology, Behavior, Intermodal preferential looking, language comprehension, children with autism, child development, autism
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Perceptual and Category Processing of the Uncanny Valley Hypothesis' Dimension of Human Likeness: Some Methodological Issues
Authors: Marcus Cheetham, Lutz Jancke.
Institutions: University of Zurich.
Mori's Uncanny Valley Hypothesis1,2 proposes that the perception of humanlike characters such as robots and, by extension, avatars (computer-generated characters) can evoke negative or positive affect (valence) depending on the object's degree of visual and behavioral realism along a dimension of human likeness (DHL) (Figure 1). But studies of affective valence of subjective responses to variously realistic non-human characters have produced inconsistent findings 3, 4, 5, 6. One of a number of reasons for this is that human likeness is not perceived as the hypothesis assumes. While the DHL can be defined following Mori's description as a smooth linear change in the degree of physical humanlike similarity, subjective perception of objects along the DHL can be understood in terms of the psychological effects of categorical perception (CP) 7. Further behavioral and neuroimaging investigations of category processing and CP along the DHL and of the potential influence of the dimension's underlying category structure on affective experience are needed. This protocol therefore focuses on the DHL and allows examination of CP. Based on the protocol presented in the video as an example, issues surrounding the methodology in the protocol and the use in "uncanny" research of stimuli drawn from morph continua to represent the DHL are discussed in the article that accompanies the video. The use of neuroimaging and morph stimuli to represent the DHL in order to disentangle brain regions neurally responsive to physical human-like similarity from those responsive to category change and category processing is briefly illustrated.
Behavior, Issue 76, Neuroscience, Neurobiology, Molecular Biology, Psychology, Neuropsychology, uncanny valley, functional magnetic resonance imaging, fMRI, categorical perception, virtual reality, avatar, human likeness, Mori, uncanny valley hypothesis, perception, magnetic resonance imaging, MRI, imaging, clinical techniques
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Using an Automated 3D-tracking System to Record Individual and Shoals of Adult Zebrafish
Authors: Hans Maaswinkel, Liqun Zhu, Wei Weng.
Institutions: xyZfish.
Like many aquatic animals, zebrafish (Danio rerio) moves in a 3D space. It is thus preferable to use a 3D recording system to study its behavior. The presented automatic video tracking system accomplishes this by using a mirror system and a calibration procedure that corrects for the considerable error introduced by the transition of light from water to air. With this system it is possible to record both single and groups of adult zebrafish. Before use, the system has to be calibrated. The system consists of three modules: Recording, Path Reconstruction, and Data Processing. The step-by-step protocols for calibration and using the three modules are presented. Depending on the experimental setup, the system can be used for testing neophobia, white aversion, social cohesion, motor impairments, novel object exploration etc. It is especially promising as a first-step tool to study the effects of drugs or mutations on basic behavioral patterns. The system provides information about vertical and horizontal distribution of the zebrafish, about the xyz-components of kinematic parameters (such as locomotion, velocity, acceleration, and turning angle) and it provides the data necessary to calculate parameters for social cohesions when testing shoals.
Behavior, Issue 82, neuroscience, Zebrafish, Danio rerio, anxiety, Shoaling, Pharmacology, 3D-tracking, MK801
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Sex Stratified Neuronal Cultures to Study Ischemic Cell Death Pathways
Authors: Stacy L. Fairbanks, Rebekah Vest, Saurabh Verma, Richard J. Traystman, Paco S. Herson.
Institutions: University of Colorado School of Medicine, Oregon Health & Science University, University of Colorado School of Medicine.
Sex differences in neuronal susceptibility to ischemic injury and neurodegenerative disease have long been observed, but the signaling mechanisms responsible for those differences remain unclear. Primary disassociated embryonic neuronal culture provides a simplified experimental model with which to investigate the neuronal cell signaling involved in cell death as a result of ischemia or disease; however, most neuronal cultures used in research today are mixed sex. Researchers can and do test the effects of sex steroid treatment in mixed sex neuronal cultures in models of neuronal injury and disease, but accumulating evidence suggests that the female brain responds to androgens, estrogens, and progesterone differently than the male brain. Furthermore, neonate male and female rodents respond differently to ischemic injury, with males experiencing greater injury following cerebral ischemia than females. Thus, mixed sex neuronal cultures might obscure and confound the experimental results; important information might be missed. For this reason, the Herson Lab at the University of Colorado School of Medicine routinely prepares sex-stratified primary disassociated embryonic neuronal cultures from both hippocampus and cortex. Embryos are sexed before harvesting of brain tissue and male and female tissue are disassociated separately, plated separately, and maintained separately. Using this method, the Herson Lab has demonstrated a male-specific role for the ion channel TRPM2 in ischemic cell death. In this manuscript, we share and discuss our protocol for sexing embryonic mice and preparing sex-stratified hippocampal primary disassociated neuron cultures. This method can be adapted to prepare sex-stratified cortical cultures and the method for embryo sexing can be used in conjunction with other protocols for any study in which sex is thought to be an important determinant of outcome.
Neuroscience, Issue 82, male, female, sex, neuronal culture, ischemia, cell death, neuroprotection
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Inchworming: A Novel Motor Stereotypy in the BTBR T+ Itpr3tf/J Mouse Model of Autism
Authors: Jacklyn D. Smith, Jong M. Rho, Susan A. Masino, Richelle Mychasiuk.
Institutions: University of Calgary Faculty of Medicine, Trinity College.
Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is a behaviorally defined neurodevelopmental disorder characterized by decreased reciprocal social interaction, abnormal communication, and repetitive behaviors with restricted interest. As diagnosis is based on clinical criteria, any potentially relevant rodent models of this heterogeneous disorder should ideally recapitulate these diverse behavioral traits. The BTBR T+ Itpr3tf/J (BTBR) mouse is an established animal model of ASD, displaying repetitive behaviors such as increased grooming, as well as cognitive inflexibility. With respect to social interaction and interest, the juvenile play test has been employed in multiple rodent models of ASD. Here, we show that when BTBR mice are tested in a juvenile social interaction enclosure containing sawdust bedding, they display a repetitive synchronous digging motion. This repetitive motor behavior, referred to as "inchworming," was named because of the stereotypic nature of the movements exhibited by the mice while moving horizontally across the floor. Inchworming mice must use their fore- and hind-limbs in synchrony to displace the bedding, performing a minimum of one inward and one outward motion. Although both BTBR and C56BL/6J (B6) mice exhibit this behavior, BTBR mice demonstrate a significantly higher duration and frequency of inchworming and a decreased latency to initiate inchworming when placed in a bedded enclosure. We conclude that this newly described behavior provides a measure of a repetitive motor stereotypy that can be easily measured in animal models of ASD.
Behavior, Issue 89, mice, inbred C57BL, social behavior, animal models, autism, BTBR, motor stereotypy, repetitive
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Training Synesthetic Letter-color Associations by Reading in Color
Authors: Olympia Colizoli, Jaap M. J. Murre, Romke Rouw.
Institutions: University of Amsterdam.
Synesthesia is a rare condition in which a stimulus from one modality automatically and consistently triggers unusual sensations in the same and/or other modalities. A relatively common and well-studied type is grapheme-color synesthesia, defined as the consistent experience of color when viewing, hearing and thinking about letters, words and numbers. We describe our method for investigating to what extent synesthetic associations between letters and colors can be learned by reading in color in nonsynesthetes. Reading in color is a special method for training associations in the sense that the associations are learned implicitly while the reader reads text as he or she normally would and it does not require explicit computer-directed training methods. In this protocol, participants are given specially prepared books to read in which four high-frequency letters are paired with four high-frequency colors. Participants receive unique sets of letter-color pairs based on their pre-existing preferences for colored letters. A modified Stroop task is administered before and after reading in order to test for learned letter-color associations and changes in brain activation. In addition to objective testing, a reading experience questionnaire is administered that is designed to probe for differences in subjective experience. A subset of questions may predict how well an individual learned the associations from reading in color. Importantly, we are not claiming that this method will cause each individual to develop grapheme-color synesthesia, only that it is possible for certain individuals to form letter-color associations by reading in color and these associations are similar in some aspects to those seen in developmental grapheme-color synesthetes. The method is quite flexible and can be used to investigate different aspects and outcomes of training synesthetic associations, including learning-induced changes in brain function and structure.
Behavior, Issue 84, synesthesia, training, learning, reading, vision, memory, cognition
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Assessment of Age-related Changes in Cognitive Functions Using EmoCogMeter, a Novel Tablet-computer Based Approach
Authors: Philipp Fuge, Simone Grimm, Anne Weigand, Yan Fan, Matti Gärtner, Melanie Feeser, Malek Bajbouj.
Institutions: Freie Universität Berlin, Charité Berlin, Freie Universität Berlin, Psychiatric University Hospital Zurich.
The main goal of this study was to assess the usability of a tablet-computer-based application (EmoCogMeter) in investigating the effects of age on cognitive functions across the lifespan in a sample of 378 healthy subjects (age range 18-89 years). Consistent with previous findings we found an age-related cognitive decline across a wide range of neuropsychological domains (memory, attention, executive functions), thereby proving the usability of our tablet-based application. Regardless of prior computer experience, subjects of all age groups were able to perform the tasks without instruction or feedback from an experimenter. Increased motivation and compliance proved to be beneficial for task performance, thereby potentially increasing the validity of the results. Our promising findings underline the great clinical and practical potential of a tablet-based application for detection and monitoring of cognitive dysfunction.
Behavior, Issue 84, Neuropsychological Testing, cognitive decline, age, tablet-computer, memory, attention, executive functions
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Barnes Maze Testing Strategies with Small and Large Rodent Models
Authors: Cheryl S. Rosenfeld, Sherry A. Ferguson.
Institutions: University of Missouri, Food and Drug Administration.
Spatial learning and memory of laboratory rodents is often assessed via navigational ability in mazes, most popular of which are the water and dry-land (Barnes) mazes. Improved performance over sessions or trials is thought to reflect learning and memory of the escape cage/platform location. Considered less stressful than water mazes, the Barnes maze is a relatively simple design of a circular platform top with several holes equally spaced around the perimeter edge. All but one of the holes are false-bottomed or blind-ending, while one leads to an escape cage. Mildly aversive stimuli (e.g. bright overhead lights) provide motivation to locate the escape cage. Latency to locate the escape cage can be measured during the session; however, additional endpoints typically require video recording. From those video recordings, use of automated tracking software can generate a variety of endpoints that are similar to those produced in water mazes (e.g. distance traveled, velocity/speed, time spent in the correct quadrant, time spent moving/resting, and confirmation of latency). Type of search strategy (i.e. random, serial, or direct) can be categorized as well. Barnes maze construction and testing methodologies can differ for small rodents, such as mice, and large rodents, such as rats. For example, while extra-maze cues are effective for rats, smaller wild rodents may require intra-maze cues with a visual barrier around the maze. Appropriate stimuli must be identified which motivate the rodent to locate the escape cage. Both Barnes and water mazes can be time consuming as 4-7 test trials are typically required to detect improved learning and memory performance (e.g. shorter latencies or path lengths to locate the escape platform or cage) and/or differences between experimental groups. Even so, the Barnes maze is a widely employed behavioral assessment measuring spatial navigational abilities and their potential disruption by genetic, neurobehavioral manipulations, or drug/ toxicant exposure.
Behavior, Issue 84, spatial navigation, rats, Peromyscus, mice, intra- and extra-maze cues, learning, memory, latency, search strategy, escape motivation
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Immunohistochemical Visualization of Hippocampal Neuron Activity After Spatial Learning in a Mouse Model of Neurodevelopmental Disorders
Authors: Giovanni Provenzano, Luca Pangrazzi, Andrea Poli, Nicoletta Berardi, Yuri Bozzi.
Institutions: University of Trento, CNR Neuroscience Institute, Pisa, Italy.
Induction of phosphorylated extracellular-regulated kinase (pERK) is a reliable molecular readout of learning-dependent neuronal activation. Here, we describe a pERK immunohistochemistry protocol to study the profile of hippocampal neuron activation following exposure to a spatial learning task in a mouse model characterized by cognitive deficits of neurodevelopmental origin. Specifically, we used pERK immunostaining to study neuronal activation following Morris water maze (MWM, a classical hippocampal-dependent learning task) in Engrailed-2 knockout (En2-/-) mice, a model of autism spectrum disorders (ASD). As compared to wild-type (WT) controls, En2-/- mice showed significant spatial learning deficits in the MWM. After MWM, significant differences in the number of pERK-positive neurons were detected in specific hippocampal subfields of En2-/- mice, as compared to WT animals. Thus, our protocol can robustly detect differences in pERK-positive neurons associated to hippocampal-dependent learning impairment in a mouse model of ASD. More generally, our protocol can be applied to investigate the profile of hippocampal neuron activation in both genetic or pharmacological mouse models characterized by cognitive deficits.
Neuroscience, Issue 99, Immunohistochemistry, Morris water maze, ERK, hippocampus, cognition, memory, autism
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