Faculty Mentor: Lisa Aziz-Zadeh PhD
Research Lab: Center for the Neuroscience of Embodied Cognition (CeNEC)
Year of Entry: 2018
I am a neuroscientist and PhD student at the Chan Division of Occupational Science and Occupational Therapy. I work with Dr. Lisa Aziz-Zadeh in the Center for the Neuroscience of Embodied Cognition at the Brain and Creativity Institute. Our project revolves around the study of the contributions of the social and motor networks and their deficits in typically developing children and children with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) and Development Coordination Disorder (Dyspraxia).
My research interests relate to the improvement of diagnostic specificity through the use of multi-modal neuroimaging techniques in conjunction with neuropsychological testing to better understand how social, sensorimotor and cognitive learning network deficits contribute to distinguishing between different ASD subtypes.
Master of Science (MSc)
in Cognitive and Computational Neuroscience
2015 | University of Sheffield
Bachelor of Technology (B.Tech)
2013 | VIT University, India
Jayashankar, A., & Aziz-Zadeh, L. (2023). Disgust processing and potential relationships with behaviors in autism. Current Psychiatry Reports, 25, 465–478. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11920-023-01445-5 Show abstract
Purpose of Review. While there are reports of differences in emotion processing in autism, it is less understood whether the emotion of disgust, in particular, plays a significant role in these effects. Here, we review literature on potential disgust processing differences in autism and its possible associations with autistic traits.
Recent Findings. In autism, there is evidence for differences in physical disgust processing, pica behaviors, attention away from other’s disgust facial expressions, and differences in neural activity related to disgust processing. In typically developing individuals, disgust processing is related to moral processing, but modulated by individual differences in interoception and alexithymia.
Summary. Autistic individuals may experience atypical disgust, which may lead to difficulty avoiding contaminants and affect socio-emotional processing. In autism, such outcomes may lead to increased occurrences of illness, contribute to gastrointestinal issues, diminish vicarious learning of disgust expression and behaviors, and potentially contribute to differences in processes related to moral reasoning, though further research is needed.
Raman, N., Ringold, S. M., Jayashankar, A., Butera, C. D., Kilroy, E., Harrison, L., Cermak, S. A., & Aziz-Zadeh, L. (2023). Relationships between affect recognition, empathy, alexithymia, and co-occurring conditions in autism. Brain Sciences, 13(8), 1161. https://doi.org/10.3390/brainsci13081161 Show abstract
Prior studies show differences in empathy and affect-recognition ability between those with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and typically developing (TD) individuals. Autistic individuals also exhibit increased behavioral, gastrointestinal, and sleep issues. In the current study, we explored the differences in empathy and affect recognition between the ASD and TD groups; and we investigated their associations with conditions co-occurring in ASD. A total of 54 TD and 56 ASD children (8–17 years) were included. As compared to the TD group, the ASD group showed lower scores for affect recognition and perspective taking (PT) and higher scores for personal distress (PD). Interestingly, results from hierarchical linear regressions suggested that disparities in the PD and PT between the groups were primarily attributable to attenuated levels of alexithymia, rather than being mediated by the presence of an autism diagnosis. Differences in affect-recognition ability, however, were mediated by both an autism diagnosis and alexithymia. We also found significant correlations between empathy and affect recognition and measures of related conditions common in ASD. Alexithymia, hence, contributes to difficulties in empathy while both alexithymia and autism are associated with affect-recognition ability in ASD. Additionally, the association between affect recognition and empathic ability with co-occurring conditions in ASD needs to be considered during assessments and interventions.
Keywords. autism; alexithymia; empathy; affect recognition; anxiety; sleep; gastrointestinal issues
Kilroy, E., Gerbella, M., Cao, L., Molfese, P., Butera, C., Harrison, L., Jayashankar, A., Rizzolatti, G., & Aziz-Zadeh, L. (2022). Specific tractography differences in autism compared to developmental coordination disorder. Scientific Reports, 12, 19246. https://doi.org/10.1038/s41598-022-21538-0 Show abstract
About 85% of children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) experience comorbid motor impairments, making it unclear whether white matter abnormalities previously found in ASD are related to social communication deficits, the hallmark of ASD, or instead related to comorbid motor impairment. Here we aim to understand specific white matter signatures of ASD beyond those related to comorbid motor impairment by comparing youth (aged 8–18) with ASD (n = 22), developmental coordination disorder (DCD; n = 16), and typically developing youth (TD; n = 22). Diffusion weighted imaging was collected and quantitative anisotropy, radial diffusivity, mean diffusivity, and axial diffusivity were compared between the three groups and correlated with social and motor measures. Compared to DCD and TD groups, diffusivity differences were found in the ASD group in the mid-cingulum longitudinal and u-fibers, the corpus callosum forceps minor/anterior commissure, and the left middle cerebellar peduncle. Compared to the TD group, the ASD group had diffusivity differences in the right inferior frontal occipital/extreme capsule and genu of the corpus callosum. These diffusion differences correlated with emotional deficits and/or autism severity. By contrast, children with DCD showed unique abnormality in the left cortico-spinal and cortico-pontine tracts.
Trial Registration. All data are available on the National Institute of Mental Health Data Archive: https://nda.nih.gov/edit_collection.html?id=2254.
Kilroy, E., Ring, P., Hossain, A., Nalbach, A., Butera, C., Harrison, L., Jayashankar, A., Vigen, C., Aziz-Zadeh, L., & Cermak, S. A. (2022). Motor performance, praxis, and social skills in autism spectrum disorder and developmental coordination disorder. Autism Research, 15(9), 1649-1664. https://doi.org/10.1002/aur.2774 Show abstract
Previous research has shown that individuals with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and developmental coordination disorder (DCD) may have overlapping social and motor skill impairments. This study compares ASD, DCD, and typically developing (TD) youth on a range of social, praxis and motor skills, and investigates the relationship between these skills in each group. Data were collected on participants aged 8–17 (n = 33 ASD, n = 28 DCD, n = 35 TD). Overall, the clinical groups showed some similar patterns of social and motor impairments but diverged in praxis impairments, cognitive empathy, and Theory of Mind ability. When controlling for both social and motor performance impairments, the ASD group showed significantly lower accuracy on imitation of meaningful gestures and gesture to command, indicating a prominent deficit in these praxis skills in ASD.
Ringold, S. M., McGuire, R. W., Jayashankar, A., Kilroy, E., Butera, C. D., Harrison, L., Cermak, S. A., & Aziz-Zadeh, L. (2022). Sensory modulation in children with developmental coordination disorder compared to autism spectrum disorder and typically developing children. Brain Sciences, 12(9), 1171. https://doi.org/10.3390/brainsci12091171 Show abstract
Developmental Coordination Disorder (DCD) is one of the least studied and understood developmental disorders. One area that has been minimally investigated in DCD is potential issues with sensory modulation. Further, in other neurodevelopmental disorders (e.g., autism spectrum disorder (ASD)) sensory modulation is related to many other challenges (e.g., social issues, repetitive behaviors, anxiety); however, such potential relationships in children with DCD have been largely unexplored. The purpose of this study is to explore sensory modulation differences in DCD and to understand the relationships between sensory modulation and social emotional measures, behavior, and motor skills in DCD in comparison to ASD and typically developing (TD) peers. Participants (aged 8–17) and their caregivers (DCD, N = 26; ASD, N = 57; and TD, N = 53) completed behavioral and clinical measures. The results indicated that 31% of the DCD group showed sensory modulation difficulties, with the DCD group falling between the ASD and TD groups. In the DCD group, sensory modulation was significantly associated with anxiety, empathic concern, repetitive behaviors, and motor skills. Data are compared to patterns seen in ASD and TD groups and implications for interventions are discussed.
Keywords. developmental coordination disorder; sensory processing; autism spectrum disorder; behavior; social emotional; motor skills; dyspraxia; empathy; sensory modulation; anxiety
Butera, C. D., Harrison, L., Jayashankar, A., Shipkova, M., Pruyser, A., & Aziz-Zadeh, L. (2022). Relationships between alexithymia, interoception, and emotional empathy in autism spectrum disorder. Autism, 1-14. https://doi.org/10.1177/13623613221111310 Show abstract
Some studies suggest that individuals with autism spectrum disorder have reduced emotional empathy while others do not. The presence of co-occurring alexithymia in autism spectrum disorder and differences in interoception have been associated with reductions in empathic ability. To fully explore the relationships between interoception, alexithymia, and emotional empathy, we collected self-report and interview data in 35 youth with autism spectrum disorder and 40 typically developing controls (ages 8–17 years). The autism spectrum disorder sample had increased alexithymia and physiological hyperarousal compared to typically developing controls, but there were no group differences in interoception or emotional empathy. Alexithymia severity correlated with higher personal distress in both groups and with lower empathic concern in the autism spectrum disorder group. Within the autism spectrum disorder group, higher incidence of reports of bodily sensation when describing emotional experience correlated with lower personal distress and lower alexithymia. In addition, although empathic concern was negatively correlated with alexithymia in the autism spectrum disorder group, across groups, the alexithymia hypothesis was supported in only the personal distress domain of emotional empathy. These results suggest emotional empathy; personal distress, in particular, is not intrinsically impaired in autism spectrum disorder.
Kilroy, E., Harrison, L., Butera, C., Jayashankar, A., Cermak, S., Kaplan, J., Williams, M., Haranin, E., Bookheimer, S., Dapretto, M., & Aziz-Zadeh, L. (2021). Unique deficit in embodied simulation in autism: An fMRI study comparing autism and developmental coordination disorder. Human Brain Mapping, 42(5), 1532-1546. https://doi.org/10.1002/hbm.25312 Show abstract
A deficit in pre‐cognitively mirroring other people's actions and experiences may be related to the social impairments observed in autism spectrum disorder (ASD). However, it is unclear whether such embodied simulation deficits are unique to ASD or instead are related to motor impairment, which is commonly comorbid with ASD. Here we aim to disentangle how, neurologically, motor impairments contribute to simulation deficits and identify unique neural signatures of ASD. We compare children with ASD (N = 30) to children with Developmental Coordination Disorder (DCD; N = 23) as well as a typically developing group (N = 33) during fMRI tasks in which children observe, imitate, and mentalize about other people's actions. Results indicate a unique neural signature in ASD: during action observation, only the ASD group shows hypoactivity in a region important for simulation (inferior frontal gyrus, pars opercularis, IFGop). However, during a motor production task (imitation), the IFGop is hypoactive for both ASD and DCD groups. For all tasks, we find correlations across groups with motor ability, even after controlling for age, IQ, and social impairment. Conversely, across groups, mentalizing ability is correlated with activity in the dorsomedial prefrontal cortex when controlling for motor ability. These findings help identify the unique neurobiological basis of ASD for aspects of social processing. Furthermore, as no previous fMRI studies correlated brain activity with motor impairment in ASD, these findings help explain prior conflicting reports in these simulation networks.
Butera, C., Ring, P., Sideris, J., Jayashankar, A., Kilroy, E., Harrison, L., Cermak, S., & Aziz-Zadeh, L. (2020). Impact of sensory processing on school performance outcomes in high functioning individuals with autism spectrum disorder. Mind, Brain, and Education, 14(3), 243-254. https://doi.org/10.1111/mbe.12242 Show abstract
Difficulty processing sensory information may impede progress in school for students with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). We explore the relationship between sensory processing and school performance in 26 high‐functioning youths with ASD and 26 controls (age 8–14) using measures of sensory, social, cognitive, and academic functioning. In the ASD group, bivariate Pearson correlations indicated a significant positive relationship between intelligence quotient (IQ) and the School Competence Scale (SCS) of the Child Behavior Checklist (CBCL), and a significant negative relationship between Dunn's Sensory Processing Framework and SCS scores. Final hierarchical multiple linear regression model accounting for SCS scores in ASD included IQ, ADHD symptoms, and sensory features. An interaction between increased sensory sensitivity with reduced sensory avoidance behaviors explained the greatest amount of variance in SCS, meaning school performance is lowest for children with greater hypersensitivity and fewer avoidance behaviors. Results indicate a strong impact of sensory processing on school performance in ASD.
November 14, 2022
USC scientists are first to identify patterns of white matter connectivity exclusive to core autistic symptoms, pointing out potential flaw in previous autism neuroscience research.
New study shows children with autism have less activity in brain region that observes, simulates movements ⟩
January 28, 2021
Team of USC and UCLA researchers first to pinpoint reduced frontal lobe activity, helping explain some social characteristics unique to autism.