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Dopamine and the development of executive dysfunction in autism spectrum disorders.

  • Author(s): Kriete, Trenton
  • Noelle, David C
  • et al.
Abstract

Persons with autism regularly exhibit executive dysfunction (ED), including problems with deliberate goal-directed behavior, planning, and flexible responding in changing environments. Indeed, this array of deficits is sufficiently prominent to have prompted a theory that executive dysfunction is at the heart of these disorders. A more detailed examination of these behaviors reveals, however, that some aspects of executive function remain developmentaly appropriate. In particular, while people with autism often have difficulty with tasks requiring cognitive flexibility, their fundamental cognitive control capabilities, such as those involved in inhibiting an inappropriate but relatively automatic response, show no significant impairment on many tasks. In this article, an existing computational model of the prefrontal cortex and its role in executive control is shown to explain this dichotomous pattern of behavior by positing abnormalities in the dopamine-based modulation of frontal systems in individuals with autism. This model offers excellent qualitative and quantitative fits to performance on standard tests of cognitive control and cognitive flexibility in this clinical population. By simulating the development of the prefrontal cortex, the computational model also offers a potential explanation for an observed lack of executive dysfunction early in life.

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