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Implicit Learning in Children With Autism

Brief Description:

In this study, we are interested in characterizing pattern-based (or implicit) learning in young children with autism as a way of understanding the function of a part of the brain called the basal ganglia, or striatum. We are using a task called the serial reaction time task, using eye tracking and EEG to measure children's ability to learn a pattern. We will also gather information on repetitive movements and motor abnormalities in these children to determine if implicit learning correlates to motor difficulties in children with autism.

Eligibility for study participation

  • Children between three and five years of age
    • with a diagnosis of autism
    • typically developing (as a comparison population)

Participation Details:

This study involves one visit to the Lab. The session will last about 45 minutes and will be scheduled at a time that is convenient for you and your child. Parents will be with their children at all times.

Research Contact:

Shafali Spurling Jeste, MD (shafali.jeste@childrens.harvard.edu)

Full Description:

Children with autism often have repetitive movements and other motor difficulties that may reflect dysfunction of a particular part of the brain, known as the striatum. The striatum is responsible for pattern-based learning (also called implicit learning or implicit memory), reward-processing, and control of movements. It is also the target of medications like Risperidone, which is used to treat irritability and aggression in children with autism. Why some children respond so well to Risperidone and others do not may reflect differences in brain circuits. Our study proposes to study striatal function, and to characterize repetitive movements, motor function, and pattern-based learning in young children with autism. Pattern-based learning will be investigated through a serial reaction time task using eye tracking and high density EEG.

We hypothesize that we will be able to define a subgroup of children with striatal dysfunction and that their motor impairments may predict specific cognitive deficits. Our study represents an attempt to define a more uniform subgroup within the autism spectrum. Only in doing so will we be able to create targeted, brain-based treatments for children affect by this disorder.

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