Research Themes

 Social Cognition and Social Neuroscience:
The opacity of minds poses a major hurdle in accessing other minds. new Therefore, people constantly make inferences and theories about the thoughts, beliefs, and desires of others. Such ability is known, in scientific terms, as Theory-of-Mind (ToM). It is fascinating to investigate the brain processes underlying such mindreading exercises which people undertake in daily life. One of the primary interests of our lab is to study the neural underpinnings of human social cognition.  We accomplish this by examining actions. Socially relevant cognitive processes are explored by focusing on three main avenues: (1) how individuals are able to understand the actions of others, (2) how they infer the emotional state of a protagonist involved in an action, and (3) how individuals then grasp the intentions behind those actions.  In any given social interaction, people process the actions by looking at the “what”, “how,” and “why” of it.  We aim to gain a better knowledge of the interrelationship of these three areas and their function in social cognition, first as separate systems, requiring different brain regions for their individual functions.  We will also examine these areas together, making up social brain networks that function in unison to achieve an overall understanding of others’ movements, goals, thoughts, and feelings. In this quest, we target two brain systems that are hypothesized to be involved in action understanding and social cognition: the mirror neuron system (MNS) and the ToM system. While the MNS has been found to play a key role in action execution and action observation, it also may mediate understanding and making inferences about other minds. Therefore, the interplay between the MNS and ToM systems may be critical in accomplishing tasks of mindreading.

Brain Connectivity:
It may be difficult to conceptualize that complex cognitive functions are accomplished by focal points in the brain in isolation. From a network perspective, such functions may be the product of a concerted effort from several proximal and distal centers in the brain. In these lines, another area of focus of the lab is on examining the network properties of the whole brain to understand cognitive and social processes at a global level.  To do this we look at connectivity functionally through fMRI, and anatomically through Diffusion Tensor Imaging (DTI). In fMRI, we measure the synchronization of the time course of the activated brain areas during a certain task. Some of our previous studies find weaker functional connectivity among brain areas in people with autism spectrum disorders. In addition to these correlation measures, we apply DTI to examine the diffusion of water in brain tissue as a measure of the integrity of white matter tracts. These methods together provide us with a converging and more detailed picture of brain connectivity, and how such connections are relevant to facilitating or disturbing normal cognition.

Spectrum Disorder:
Autism spectrum disorders are characterized by a triad of symptoms:
1) impairments in social interaction;
2) impairments in language and communication; and
3) repetitive behavior and restricted interests. Considering our lab’s interest in asking questions related to social cognitionAutism and social neuroscience, autism provides an appropriate arena to study the function and dysfunction of the “social brain.” In addition, in light of the past findings of functional disconnection in the brains of people with autism, our projects on autism further investigate such connections in the “social brain” and extend that to find training for mending those connections.  By applying our research questions related to social cognition and connectivity to autism, we are able to gain insight into the neural deficits and strengths associated with autism, as well as a better understanding of the overall functioning of the social brain in humans.  Some of our studies with typical individuals are also applied to autism. For instance, we have ongoing studies on understanding and inferring emotions from body postures and actions. In addition, Theory-of-Mind provides a good template to examine social cognition and social brain in autism.  Overall, we have functional MRI studies on a variety of topics, such as implicit learning, Theory-of-Mind, self-other understanding, emotion recognition from body language, and causal attribution. Findings from these studies are providing valuable insights into the inner workings of the brain in people with autism. Any research study pertaining to a disorder should ultimately lead to helping the individuals affected by the disorder. Since the lab’s main focus is autism research, we are always looking in that direction, in achieving this goal of bringing basic research to the community. In these lines, one of our ongoing projects examines the effect of established language remediation training on brain activation and brain connectivity in autism.

Language & Communication: 
 Problems associated with language and communication constitutes one of the triad of impairments defining autism spectrum disorders. While a huge segment of children and adults with autism do not have functional speech, children and adults with high-functioning autism and Asperger Syndrome usually have reasonably good language. Where they falter is at the social use of language. We study the pragmatic aspects of language processing in autism and its neural underpinnings. For instance, figurative language forms a difficult area for people with autism to process and to use. One of our recently completed studies on pun comprehension examined hemispheric differences in comprehending puns in autism. The goal here is to characterize the language areas in the brain in autism and to assess how core vs. extended language regions respond to different tasks in autism.