Key social reward circuit in the brain impaired in kids with autism (Science Daily)

"Social interaction is usually inherently rewarding. If it's not rewarding enough to a child with autism, that could have cascading effects on other brain systems," Vinod Menon, PhD 

Study Design:

  • MRI brain scans were collected from children with and without a diagnosis of ASD while viewing pictures of faces (social) of pictures of scenery (non-social).

  • MRI scans were compared between the two groups to find functional and structural differences within the brain.

Key points:

  • Social interaction is inherently rewarding in typically developing individuals.

  • Researchers show differences in a brain pathway for children with ASD that is associated with rewarding feelings for social interaction.

  • Severity of social impairment is correlated to decreased density of nerve fibres in the mesolimbic pathway.

  • This supports the social motivation theory of autism, that individuals with ASDs find social interaction less appealing than typically developing persons.



  • There are functional and structural differences in the brain that contribute to social impairment for children diagnosed with ASDs.

  • These differences may make it more challenging for children to acquire more complex social skills.

  • Interacting with other people is crucial in the development of social-communication skills. If children do not find these interactions as rewarding, they may seek fewer opportunities to practice and develop these skills.

  • This study points to the importance of early autism treatments to develop social skills. Effective use of autism therapies that utilize rewards to help children engage in social interactions may be beneficial in strengthening these neural pathways, but additional research is necessary to clarify this.


Stanford Medicine. "Key social reward circuit in the brain impaired in kids with autism." ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 16 July 2018. <>.

Kaustubh Supekar, John Kochalka, Marie Schaer, Holly Wakeman, Shaozheng Qin, Aarthi Padmanabhan, Vinod Menon. OUP accepted manuscript. Brain, 2018 DOI: 10.1093/brain/awy191