Research Topic

The medial prefrontal cortex and integration in ASD and typical cognition

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The field of the study of autism spectrum disorders (ASD) can be broadly divided into two equally important approaches. One focuses on etiology, and as we now know, entails the study of a large number of molecular pathways and genes. The other focuses on understanding the cognition of people with ASD, and ...

The field of the study of autism spectrum disorders (ASD) can be broadly divided into two equally important approaches. One focuses on etiology, and as we now know, entails the study of a large number of molecular pathways and genes. The other focuses on understanding the cognition of people with ASD, and what this teaches us about typically developed cognition.

In terms of the second approach, a longstanding theme is that of a lack of, or atypicality, of integration. Despite it's intuitive power, there have been very few attempts to specify the specific type of integration, that would allow for a systematic investigation of its neural basis. A recent paper in the Neuroscientist has attempted to do just that, in terms of a connection between subareas of the medial prefrontal cortex and the integration of familiar cognitive objects (albeit often under different names): perceptual objects, memory episodes, emotional states, and motor actions.

The model suggested that in each of these four domains, three levels of cognition can be identified: a basic pre-integrative level, an integrative level which produces the above mentioned cognitive objects, and a 'logical' or higher-order level that performs selection and combination on these objects. It further suggests that a lack of or atypicality of these types of objects is the source of much of the often discussed lack of or atypicality of integration in ASD. In other words, we are interested in the emotion, memory, motor, and perception aspects of autism, through the perspective of the contribution of this particular form of integration.

What makes this model relevant far beyond the discussion of ASD, is the fact that in typical development there is a great difficulty to distinguish between phenomena that should go under the integrative level and those that should go under the high-order level. And, that if the model is on the right track, that this integrative level plays a crucial role in the way our brain organizes and creates our experience. Thus, the study of a population like high-functioning ASD, in which the integrative level is arguably atypical relative to the high-order level, can provide a window on this type of integration in typically developed cognition.

For this Research Topic, we, therefore, solicit reviews, original research articles, method papers, but also, opinion papers, book reviews, and general commentaries, which address the role of this specific form of integration, whether in terms of how it is atypical in ASD (e.g., how it contributes to agnosias, episodic memory difficulties, alexithymia, and dyspraxia) , or how it is typically functioning in typical cognition. We are genuinely interested in how this particular form of integration plays out in typical cognition (e.g. in object attention, the construction of new motor actions after practice, etc.). While focusing on work in the neurosciences, this Research Topic also welcomes contributions in the form of behavioral studies, psychophysiological investigations, methodological innovations, computational approaches, developmental and case studies.

"When I was 7 I got a doll's house [. . .]. I picked it up [. . .] in my mouth [. . .]. I later moved onto the series of flattened white blocks [. . .] before stacking them in piles according to size. [. . .] I saw no doll's house " (Williams, 2003)


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