Simultaneous Robotic Manipulation and Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging: Feasibility in Children with Autism Spectrum Disorders

Nicole M.G. Salowitz, Marquette University
Bridget Dolan, Marquette University
Rheanna Remmel, Marquette University
Amy Vaughan van Hecke, Marquette University
Kristine M. Mosier, Indiana University School of Medicine
Lucia Simo, Northwestern University
Robert A. Scheidt, Marquette University

Published version. Journal of Systemics, Cybernetics and Informatics, Vol. 12, No. 2 (2014): 67-73. Permalink. © International Institute of Informatics and Cybernetics 2014. Used with Permission.


An unanswered question concerning the neural basis of autism spectrum disorders (ASD) is how sensorimotor deficits in individuals with ASD are related to abnormalities of brain function. We previously described a robotic joystick and video game system that allows us to record functional magnetic resonance images (FMRI) while adult humans make goal-directed wrist motions. We anticipated several challenges in extending this approach to studying goal-directed behaviors in children with ASD and in typically developing (TYP) children. In particular we were concerned that children with autism may express increased levels of anxiety as compared to typically developing children due to the loud sounds and small enclosed space of the MRI scanner. We also were concerned that both groups of children might become restless during testing, leading to an unacceptable amount of head movement. Here we performed a pilot study evaluating the extent to which autistic and typically developing children exhibit anxiety during our experimental protocol as well as their ability to comply with task instructions. Our experimental controls were successful in minimizing group differences in drop-out due to anxiety. Kinematic performance and head motion also were similar across groups. Both groups of children engaged cortical regions (frontal, parietal, temporal, occipital) while making goal-directed movements. In addition, the ASD group exhibited task-related correlations in subcortical regions (cerebellum, thalamus), whereas correlations in the TYP group did not reach statistical significance in subcortical regions. Four distinct regions in frontal cortex showed a significant group difference such that TYP children exhibited positive correlations between the hemodynamic response and movement, whereas children with ASD exhibited negative correlations. These findings demonstrate feasibility of simultaneous application of robotic manipulation and functional imaging to study goal-directed motor behaviors in autistic and typically developing children. The findings also suggest the presence of marked changes in neural activation during a sensorimotor task requiring goal-directed movement.