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.
18 Related JoVE Articles!
Eye Tracking Young Children with Autism
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
EEG Mu Rhythm in Typical and Atypical Development
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
Two-photon Calcium Imaging in Mice Navigating a Virtual Reality Environment
Institutions: Friedrich Miescher Institute for Biomedical Research, Max Planck Institute of Neurobiology, ETH Zurich.
In recent years, two-photon imaging has become an invaluable tool in neuroscience, as it allows for chronic measurement of the activity of genetically identified cells during behavior1-6
. Here we describe methods to perform two-photon imaging in mouse cortex while the animal navigates a virtual reality environment. We focus on the aspects of the experimental procedures that are key to imaging in a behaving animal in a brightly lit virtual environment. The key problems that arise in this experimental setup that we here address are: minimizing brain motion related artifacts, minimizing light leak from the virtual reality projection system, and minimizing laser induced tissue damage. We also provide sample software to control the virtual reality environment and to do pupil tracking. With these procedures and resources it should be possible to convert a conventional two-photon microscope for use in behaving mice.
Behavior, Issue 84, Two-photon imaging, Virtual Reality, mouse behavior, adeno-associated virus, genetically encoded calcium indicators
Contextual and Cued Fear Conditioning Test Using a Video Analyzing System in Mice
Institutions: Fujita Health University, Core Research for Evolutionary Science and Technology (CREST), National Institutes of Natural Sciences.
The contextual and cued fear conditioning test is one of the behavioral tests that assesses the ability of mice to learn and remember an association between environmental cues and aversive experiences. In this test, mice are placed into a conditioning chamber and are given parings of a conditioned stimulus (an auditory cue) and an aversive unconditioned stimulus (an electric footshock). After a delay time, the mice are exposed to the same conditioning chamber and a differently shaped chamber with presentation of the auditory cue. Freezing behavior during the test is measured as an index of fear memory. To analyze the behavior automatically, we have developed a video analyzing system using the ImageFZ application software program, which is available as a free download at https://www.mouse-phenotype.org/. Here, to show the details of our protocol, we demonstrate our procedure for the contextual and cued fear conditioning test in C57BL/6J mice using the ImageFZ system. In addition, we validated our protocol and the video analyzing system performance by comparing freezing time measured by the ImageFZ system or a photobeam-based computer measurement system with that scored by a human observer. As shown in our representative results, the data obtained by ImageFZ were similar to those analyzed by a human observer, indicating that the behavioral analysis using the ImageFZ system is highly reliable. The present movie article provides detailed information regarding the test procedures and will promote understanding of the experimental situation.
Behavior, Issue 85, Fear, Learning, Memory, ImageFZ program, Mouse, contextual fear, cued fear
Development of a Virtual Reality Assessment of Everyday Living Skills
Institutions: NeuroCog Trials, Inc., Duke-NUS Graduate Medical Center, Duke University Medical Center, Fox Evaluation and Consulting, PLLC, University of Miami Miller School of Medicine.
Cognitive impairments affect the majority of patients with schizophrenia and these impairments predict poor long term psychosocial outcomes. Treatment studies aimed at cognitive impairment in patients with schizophrenia not only require demonstration of improvements on cognitive tests, but also evidence that any cognitive changes lead to clinically meaningful improvements. Measures of “functional capacity” index the extent to which individuals have the potential to perform skills required for real world functioning. Current data do not support the recommendation of any single instrument for measurement of functional capacity. The Virtual Reality Functional Capacity Assessment Tool (VRFCAT) is a novel, interactive gaming based measure of functional capacity that uses a realistic simulated environment to recreate routine activities of daily living. Studies are currently underway to evaluate and establish the VRFCAT’s sensitivity, reliability, validity, and practicality. This new measure of functional capacity is practical, relevant, easy to use, and has several features that improve validity and sensitivity of measurement of function in clinical trials of patients with CNS disorders.
Behavior, Issue 86, Virtual Reality, Cognitive Assessment, Functional Capacity, Computer Based Assessment, Schizophrenia, Neuropsychology, Aging, Dementia
Measurement Of Neuromagnetic Brain Function In Pre-school Children With Custom Sized MEG
Institutions: Macquarie University.
Magnetoencephalography is a technique that detects magnetic fields associated with cortical activity . The electrophysiological activity of the brain generates electric fields - that can be recorded using electroencephalography (EEG)- and their concomitant magnetic fields - detected by MEG. MEG signals are detected by specialized sensors known as superconducting quantum interference devices (SQUIDs). Superconducting sensors require cooling with liquid helium at -270 °C. They are contained inside a vacumm-insulated helmet called a dewar, which is filled with liquid. SQUIDS are placed in fixed positions inside the helmet dewar in the helium coolant, and a subject's head is placed inside the helmet dewar for MEG measurements. The helmet dewar must be sized to satisfy opposing constraints. Clearly, it must be large enough to fit most or all of the heads in the population that will be studied. However, the helmet must also be small enough to keep most of the SQUID sensors within range of the tiny cerebral fields that they are to measure. Conventional whole-head MEG systems are designed to accommodate more than 90% of adult heads. However adult systems are not well suited for measuring brain function in pre-school chidren whose heads have a radius several cm smaller than adults. The KIT-Macquarie Brain Research Laboratory at Macquarie University uses a MEG system custom sized to fit the heads of pre-school children. This child system has 64 first-order axial gradiometers with a 50 mm baseline and is contained inside a magnetically-shielded room (MSR) together with a conventional adult-sized MEG system [3,4]. There are three main advantages of the customized helmet dewar for studying children. First, the smaller radius of the sensor configuration brings the SQUID sensors into range of the neuromagnetic signals of children's heads. Second, the smaller helmet allows full insertion of a child's head into the dewar. Full insertion is prevented in adult dewar helmets because of the smaller crown to shoulder distance in children. These two factors are fundamental in recording brain activity using MEG because neuromagnetic signals attenuate rapidly with distance. Third, the customized child helmet aids in the symmetric positioning of the head and limits the freedom of movement of the child's head within the dewar. When used with a protocol that aligns the requirements of data collection with the motivational and behavioral capacities of children, these features significantly facilitate setup, positioning, and measurement of MEG signals.
Neuroscience, Issue 36, Magnetoencephalography, Pediatrics, Brain Mapping, Language, Brain Development, Cognitive Neuroscience, Language Acquisition, Linguistics
Training Synesthetic Letter-color Associations by Reading in Color
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
Cortical Source Analysis of High-Density EEG Recordings in Children
Institutions: UCL Institute of Child Health, University College London.
EEG is traditionally described as a neuroimaging technique with high temporal and low spatial resolution. Recent advances in biophysical modelling and signal processing make it possible to exploit information from other imaging modalities like structural MRI that provide high spatial resolution to overcome this constraint1
. This is especially useful for investigations that require high resolution in the temporal as well as spatial domain. In addition, due to the easy application and low cost of EEG recordings, EEG is often the method of choice when working with populations, such as young children, that do not tolerate functional MRI scans well. However, in order to investigate which neural substrates are involved, anatomical information from structural MRI is still needed. Most EEG analysis packages work with standard head models that are based on adult anatomy. The accuracy of these models when used for children is limited2
, because the composition and spatial configuration of head tissues changes dramatically over development3
In the present paper, we provide an overview of our recent work in utilizing head models based on individual structural MRI scans or age specific head models to reconstruct the cortical generators of high density EEG. This article describes how EEG recordings are acquired, processed, and analyzed with pediatric populations at the London Baby Lab, including laboratory setup, task design, EEG preprocessing, MRI processing, and EEG channel level and source analysis.
Behavior, Issue 88, EEG, electroencephalogram, development, source analysis, pediatric, minimum-norm estimation, cognitive neuroscience, event-related potentials
Using the Threat Probability Task to Assess Anxiety and Fear During Uncertain and Certain Threat
Institutions: University of Wisconsin-Madison.
Fear of certain threat and anxiety about uncertain threat are distinct emotions with unique behavioral, cognitive-attentional, and neuroanatomical components. Both anxiety and fear can be studied in the laboratory by measuring the potentiation of the startle reflex. The startle reflex is a defensive reflex that is potentiated when an organism is threatened and the need for defense is high. The startle reflex is assessed via electromyography (EMG) in the orbicularis oculi muscle elicited by brief, intense, bursts of acoustic white noise (i.e.
, “startle probes”). Startle potentiation is calculated as the increase in startle response magnitude during presentation of sets of visual threat cues that signal delivery of mild electric shock relative to sets of matched cues that signal the absence of shock (no-threat cues). In the Threat Probability Task, fear is measured via startle potentiation to high probability (100% cue-contingent shock; certain) threat cues whereas anxiety is measured via startle potentiation to low probability (20% cue-contingent shock; uncertain) threat cues. Measurement of startle potentiation during the Threat Probability Task provides an objective and easily implemented alternative to assessment of negative affect via self-report or other methods (e.g.
, neuroimaging) that may be inappropriate or impractical for some researchers. Startle potentiation has been studied rigorously in both animals (e.g
., rodents, non-human primates) and humans which facilitates animal-to-human translational research. Startle potentiation during certain and uncertain threat provides an objective measure of negative affective and distinct emotional states (fear, anxiety) to use in research on psychopathology, substance use/abuse and broadly in affective science. As such, it has been used extensively by clinical scientists interested in psychopathology etiology and by affective scientists interested in individual differences in emotion.
Behavior, Issue 91,
Startle; electromyography; shock; addiction; uncertainty; fear; anxiety; humans; psychophysiology; translational
Measuring Attentional Biases for Threat in Children and Adults
Institutions: Rutgers University.
Investigators have long been interested in the human propensity for the rapid detection of threatening stimuli. However, until recently, research in this domain has focused almost exclusively on adult participants, completely ignoring the topic of threat detection over the course of development. One of the biggest reasons for the lack of developmental work in this area is likely the absence of a reliable paradigm that can measure perceptual biases for threat in children. To address this issue, we recently designed a modified visual search paradigm similar to the standard adult paradigm that is appropriate for studying threat detection in preschool-aged participants. Here we describe this new procedure. In the general paradigm, we present participants with matrices of color photographs, and ask them to find and touch a target on the screen. Latency to touch the target is recorded. Using a touch-screen monitor makes the procedure simple and easy, allowing us to collect data in participants ranging from 3 years of age to adults. Thus far, the paradigm has consistently shown that both adults and children detect threatening stimuli (e.g.,
snakes, spiders, angry/fearful faces) more quickly than neutral stimuli (e.g.,
flowers, mushrooms, happy/neutral faces). Altogether, this procedure provides an important new tool for researchers interested in studying the development of attentional biases for threat.
Behavior, Issue 92, Detection, threat, attention, attentional bias, anxiety, visual search
Inchworming: A Novel Motor Stereotypy in the BTBR T+ Itpr3tf/J Mouse Model of Autism
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
Marble Burying and Nestlet Shredding as Tests of Repetitive, Compulsive-like Behaviors in Mice
Institutions: Wayne State University School of Medicine.
Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) and autism spectrum disorders (ASD) are serious and debilitating psychiatric conditions and each constitutes a significant public health concern, particularly in children. Both of these conditions are highlighted by the repeated expression of meaningless behaviors. Individuals with OCD often show checking, frequent hand washing, and counting. Children with ASDs also engage in repetitive tapping, arm or hand flapping, and rocking. These behaviors can vary widely in intensity and frequency of expression. More intense forms of repetitive behaviors can even result in injury (e.g.
excessive grooming, hand washing, and self-stimulation). These behaviors are therefore very disruptive and make normal social discourse difficult. Treatment options for repetitive behaviors in OCD and ASDs are somewhat limited and there is great interest in developing more effective therapies for each condition. Numerous animal models for evaluating compulsive-like behaviors have been developed over the past three decades. Perhaps the animal models with the greatest validity and ease of use are the marble burying test and the nestlet shredding test. Both tests take advantage of the fact that the target behaviors occur spontaneously in mice. In the marble burying test, 20 marbles are arrayed on the surface of clean bedding. The number of marbles buried in a 30 min session is scored by investigators blind to the treatment or status of the subjects. In the nestlet shredding test, a nestlet comprised of pulped cotton fiber is preweighed and placed on top of cage bedding and the amount of the nestlet remaining intact after a 30 min test session is determined. Presently, we describe protocols for and show movie documentation of marble burying and nestlet shredding. Both tests are easily and accurately scored and each is sensitive to small changes in the expression of compulsive-like behaviors that result from genetic manipulations, disease, or head injury.
Behavior, Issue 82, compulsive-like behaviors, obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), autism spectrum disorders (ASD), marble burying, nestlet shredding, TPH2 KO mice
Community-based Adapted Tango Dancing for Individuals with Parkinson's Disease and Older Adults
Institutions: Emory University School of Medicine, Brigham and Woman‘s Hospital and Massachusetts General Hospital.
Adapted tango dancing improves mobility and balance in older adults and additional populations with balance impairments. It is composed of very simple step elements. Adapted tango involves movement initiation and cessation, multi-directional perturbations, varied speeds and rhythms. Focus on foot placement, whole body coordination, and attention to partner, path of movement, and aesthetics likely underlie adapted tango’s demonstrated efficacy for improving mobility and balance. In this paper, we describe the methodology to disseminate the adapted tango teaching methods to dance instructor trainees and to implement the adapted tango by the trainees in the community for older adults and individuals with Parkinson’s Disease (PD). Efficacy in improving mobility (measured with the Timed Up and Go, Tandem stance, Berg Balance Scale, Gait Speed and 30 sec chair stand), safety and fidelity of the program is maximized through targeted instructor and volunteer training and a structured detailed syllabus outlining class practices and progression.
Behavior, Issue 94, Dance, tango, balance, pedagogy, dissemination, exercise, older adults, Parkinson's Disease, mobility impairments, falls
Using an Automated 3D-tracking System to Record Individual and Shoals of Adult Zebrafish
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
Probing the Brain in Autism Using fMRI and Diffusion Tensor Imaging
Institutions: University of Alabama at Birmingham.
Newly emerging theories suggest that the brain does not function as a cohesive unit in autism, and this discordance is reflected in the behavioral symptoms displayed by individuals with autism. While structural neuroimaging findings have provided some insights into brain abnormalities in autism, the consistency of such findings is questionable. Functional neuroimaging, on the other hand, has been more fruitful in this regard because autism is a disorder of dynamic processing and allows examination of communication between cortical networks, which appears to be where the underlying problem occurs in autism. Functional connectivity is defined as the temporal correlation of spatially separate neurological events1. Findings from a number of recent fMRI studies have supported the idea that there is weaker coordination between different parts of the brain that should be working together to accomplish complex social or language problems2,3,4,5,6
. One of the mysteries of autism is the coexistence of deficits in several domains along with relatively intact, sometimes enhanced, abilities. Such complex manifestation of autism calls for a global and comprehensive examination of the disorder at the neural level. A compelling recent account of the brain functioning in autism, the cortical underconnectivity theory,2,7
provides an integrating framework for the neurobiological bases of autism. The cortical underconnectivity theory of autism suggests that any language, social, or psychological function that is dependent on the integration of multiple brain regions is susceptible to disruption as the processing demand increases. In autism, the underfunctioning of integrative circuitry in the brain may cause widespread underconnectivity. In other words, people with autism may interpret information in a piecemeal fashion at the expense of the whole. Since cortical underconnectivity among brain regions, especially the frontal cortex and more posterior areas 3,6
, has now been relatively well established, we can begin to further understand brain connectivity as a critical component of autism symptomatology.
A logical next step in this direction is to examine the anatomical connections that may mediate the functional connections mentioned above. Diffusion Tensor Imaging (DTI) is a relatively novel neuroimaging technique that helps probe the diffusion of water in the brain to infer the integrity of white matter fibers. In this technique, water diffusion in the brain is examined in several directions using diffusion gradients. While functional connectivity provides information about the synchronization of brain activation across different brain areas during a task or during rest, DTI helps in understanding the underlying axonal organization which may facilitate the cross-talk among brain areas. This paper will describe these techniques as valuable tools in understanding the brain in autism and the challenges involved in this line of research.
Medicine, Issue 55, Functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), MRI, Diffusion tensor imaging (DTI), Functional Connectivity, Neuroscience, Developmental disorders, Autism, Fractional Anisotropy
Human Fear Conditioning Conducted in Full Immersion 3-Dimensional Virtual Reality
Institutions: Duke University, Duke University.
Fear conditioning is a widely used paradigm in non-human animal research to investigate the neural mechanisms underlying fear and anxiety. A major challenge in conducting conditioning studies in humans is the ability to strongly manipulate or simulate the environmental contexts that are associated with conditioned emotional behaviors. In this regard, virtual reality (VR) technology is a promising tool. Yet, adapting this technology to meet experimental constraints requires special accommodations. Here we address the methodological issues involved when conducting fear conditioning in a fully immersive 6-sided VR environment and present fear conditioning data.
In the real world, traumatic events occur in complex environments that are made up of many cues, engaging all of our sensory modalities. For example, cues that form the environmental configuration include not only visual elements, but aural, olfactory, and even tactile. In rodent studies of fear conditioning animals are fully immersed in a context that is rich with novel visual, tactile and olfactory cues. However, standard laboratory tests of fear conditioning in humans are typically conducted in a nondescript room in front of a flat or 2D computer screen and do not replicate the complexity of real world experiences. On the other hand, a major limitation of clinical studies aimed at reducing (extinguishing) fear and preventing relapse in anxiety disorders is that treatment occurs after participants have acquired a fear in an uncontrolled and largely unknown context. Thus the experimenters are left without information about the duration of exposure, the true nature of the stimulus, and associated background cues in the environment1
. In the absence of this information it can be difficult to truly extinguish a fear that is both cue and context-dependent. Virtual reality environments address these issues by providing the complexity of the real world, and at the same time allowing experimenters to constrain fear conditioning and extinction parameters to yield empirical data that can suggest better treatment options and/or analyze mechanistic hypotheses.
In order to test the hypothesis that fear conditioning may be richly encoded and context specific when conducted in a fully immersive environment, we developed distinct virtual reality 3-D contexts in which participants experienced fear conditioning to virtual snakes or spiders. Auditory cues co-occurred with the CS in order to further evoke orienting responses and a feeling of "presence" in subjects 2
. Skin conductance response served as the dependent measure of fear acquisition, memory retention and extinction.
JoVE Neuroscience, Issue 42, fear conditioning, virtual reality, human memory, skin conductance response, context learning
Making MR Imaging Child's Play - Pediatric Neuroimaging Protocol, Guidelines and Procedure
Institutions: Children’s Hospital Boston, University of Zurich, Harvard, Harvard Medical School.
Within the last decade there has been an increase in the use of structural and functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to investigate the neural basis of human perception, cognition and behavior 1, 2
. Moreover, this non-invasive imaging method has grown into a tool for clinicians and researchers to explore typical and atypical brain development. Although advances in neuroimaging tools and techniques are apparent, (f)MRI in young pediatric populations remains relatively infrequent 2
. Practical as well as technical challenges when imaging children present clinicians and research teams with a unique set of problems 3, 2
. To name just a few, the child participants are challenged by a need for motivation, alertness and cooperation. Anxiety may be an additional factor to be addressed. Researchers or clinicians need to consider time constraints, movement restriction, scanner background noise and unfamiliarity with the MR scanner environment2,4-10
. A progressive use of functional and structural neuroimaging in younger age groups, however, could further add to our understanding of brain development. As an example, several research groups are currently working towards early detection of developmental disorders, potentially even before children present associated behavioral characteristics e.g.11
. Various strategies and techniques have been reported as a means to ensure comfort and cooperation of young children during neuroimaging sessions. Play therapy 12
, behavioral approaches 13, 14,15, 16-18
and simulation 19
, the use of mock scanner areas 20,21
, basic relaxation 22
and a combination of these techniques 23
have all been shown to improve the participant's compliance and thus MRI data quality. Even more importantly, these strategies have proven to increase the comfort of families and children involved 12
. One of the main advances of such techniques for the clinical practice is the possibility of avoiding sedation or general anesthesia (GA) as a way to manage children's compliance during MR imaging sessions 19,20
. In the current video report, we present a pediatric neuroimaging protocol with guidelines and procedures that have proven to be successful to date in young children.
Neuroscience, Issue 29, fMRI, imaging, development, children, pediatric neuroimaging, cognitive development, magnetic resonance imaging, pediatric imaging protocol, patient preparation, mock scanner
The use of Biofeedback in Clinical Virtual Reality: The INTREPID Project
Institutions: Istituto Auxologico Italiano, Università Cattolica del Sacro Cuore.
Generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) is a psychiatric disorder characterized by a constant and unspecific anxiety that interferes with daily-life activities. Its high prevalence in general population and the severe limitations it causes, point out the necessity to find new efficient strategies to treat it. Together with the cognitive-behavioral treatments, relaxation represents a useful approach for the treatment of GAD, but it has the limitation that it is hard to be learned. The INTREPID project is aimed to implement a new instrument to treat anxiety-related disorders and to test its clinical efficacy in reducing anxiety-related symptoms. The innovation of this approach is the combination of virtual reality and biofeedback, so that the first one is directly modified by the output of the second one. In this way, the patient is made aware of his or her reactions through the modification of some features of the VR environment in real time. Using mental exercises the patient learns to control these physiological parameters and using the feedback provided by the virtual environment is able to gauge his or her success. The supplemental use of portable devices, such as PDA or smart-phones, allows the patient to perform at home, individually and autonomously, the same exercises experienced in therapist's office. The goal is to anchor the learned protocol in a real life context, so enhancing the patients' ability to deal with their symptoms. The expected result is a better and faster learning of relaxation techniques, and thus an increased effectiveness of the treatment if compared with traditional clinical protocols.
Neuroscience, Issue 33, virtual reality, biofeedback, generalized anxiety disorder, Intrepid, cybertherapy, cyberpsychology