Preliminary results from a four-month study show that pivotal response training (PRT) can alter brain function in children with autism.
Areas of the brain that process social information showed changes after the therapy was used on children. Several mental areas showed improvement after the experiment which was measured by response to visual stimuli.
Pivotal Response Training was used with half of the participants in this study with autism spectrum disorder. This therapy uses some of the child’s favorite playtime activities. The therapist then develops certain ways to communicate by engaging the child in their own interests.
Researchers showed photographs of houses as well as pictures of human faces to children in two groups. The first group contained 40 children with autism spectrum disorder and the second was a control group of 20 children who did not have autism. All children were shown the photos before the treatment and then after receiving it for 4 months. Functional magnetic response imaging (fMRI) was used to monitor activity in the brain.
At the beginning of the study, the children with autism showed more brain activity when shown photos of houses than when they looked at the face pictures, which was the opposite of what the control group demonstrated. This indicates that they respond more to physical objects than to social stimuli.
Early results from the therapy showed that following the treatment, children in the autistic group showed increased activity in the medial prefrontal cortex. This area is associated with social cognition. The children within this same group who did not receive treatment showed a small decline in mental activity in the same area.
However, in one way the results were contradictory. Some of the children were monitored to determine which regions of the face they focused on. The children with autism actually focused more on the subject’s mouths than they did on their eyes during the second observation after receiving the therapy. This indicates that the children read mouths for social cues more than eyes, like most other children would, though researchers expected to see the opposite after the therapy was complete. This data was only recorded in nine children, so the results should be noted with a larger sample size.
While the research is still in its early phases, the findings show that PRT may be effective in normalizing social cognition in children with autism. Students and associates at Yale University conducting the study hope to have more in-depth results published early next year.