Autism Journal Club

Modeling cognitive flexibility in autism spectrum disorder and typical development reveals comparable developmental shifts in learning mechanisms

Greta will be presenting a paper by Daisy et al (2020) Zoom details: Join Zoom Meeting https://uofglasgow.zoom.us/j/91553567151 Meeting ID: 915 5356 7151 Abstract Background: Cognitive flexibility – the ability to learn from and flexibly adapt to changing feedback in our environment – is critical for everyday decision-making and develops through childhood and adolescence into adulthood. Impaired cognitive flexibility is implicated in autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and may be related to restricted and repetitive behaviors (RRB). Methods: We examined cognitive flexibility in 572 children, adolescents and adults with ASD (N=321) and typical development (TD; N=251) using a probabilistic reversal learning task, which requires tracking of a changing optimal response in an uncertain environment. We investigated underlying mechanisms using computational modeling to quantify latent variables that index perseveration and feedback sensitivity. We then assessed how these variables related to diagnosis and developmental stage. Within ASD individuals, we further examined correlations with core and associated symptomatology. Results: Both age group and diagnosis affected the degree of perseveration and feedback sensitivity. Computational modeling revealed that different learning processes are dominant during different developmental stages, but they are comparable between ASD and TD groups. However, within each age group, ASD individuals learnt less efficiently for the task environment than TD individuals, and ASD adolescents specifically showed reduced reward learning. In ASD children, task errors were positively associated with anxiety symptoms; in ASD adults, perseveration (indexed by both behavioral measures and model parameters) was related to more RRB. Conclusions: Learning mechanisms underpinning cognitive flexibility differed across developmental stage but not diagnosis. These results emphasise the importance of development when considering case-control differences and demonstrate the value of mechanistic approaches in psychiatry by providing novel insights into flexible choice behaviour in ASD.