Deficits in Multisensory Integration -- 1

Preliminary evidence for deficits in multisensory integration in autism spectrum disorders: The mirror neuron hypothesis



Lindsay M. Oberman

& Vilayanur S. Ramachandran


Center for Brain and Cognition, UC San Diego, La Jolla, CA 92093-0109

Department of Psychology, UC San Diego, La Jolla, CA 92093-0109

Department of Neurosciences, UC San Diego, La Jolla, CA 92093-0662

3900 Words

Correspondence should be sent to: Lindsay M. Oberman, 9500 Gilman Drive, La Jolla, CA 92093-0109; (858) 534-7907; fax: (858) 534-7190,

Key Words: Bouba-Kiki, Sound-Form Symbolism, Mirror Neuron System, Autism

Deficits in Multisensory Integration -- 2 Abstract

Autism is a complex disorder, characterized by social, cognitive, communicative, and motor symptoms. One suggestion, proposed in the current study, to explain the spectrum of symptoms is an underlying impairment in multisensory integration (MSI) systems such as a mirror neuron-like system. The mirror neuron system, thought to play a critical role in skills such as imitation, empathy, and language can be thought of as a multisensory system, converting sensory stimuli into motor representations. Consistent with this, we report preliminary evidence for deficits in a task thought to tap into MSI – “the bouba-kiki task” in children with ASD. The bouba-kiki effect is produced when subjects are asked to pair nonsense shapes with nonsense “words”. We find that neurotypical children chose the nonsense “word” whose phonemic structure corresponds with the visual shape of the stimuli 88% of the time. This is presumably because of mirror neuron-like multisensory systems that integrate the visual shape with the corresponding motor gestures used to pronounce the nonsense word. Surprisingly, individuals with ASD only chose the corresponding name 56% of the time. The poor performance by the ASD group on this task suggests a deficit in MSI, perhaps related to impaired MSI brain systems. Though this is a behavioral study, it provides a testable hypothesis for the communication impairments in children with ASD that implicates a specific neural system and fits well with the current findings suggesting an impairment in the mirror systems in individuals with ASD.

2000.. stereotyped behaviors) and cognitive-social impairments (e. 2000. 2003). 1998. 2005a. Kjelgaard and TagerFlusburg. The mirror neuron system..Deficits in Multisensory Integration -. 2001.3 Individuals with autism spectrum disorders often show both sensorimotor impairments (repetitive. which attempt to explain one or more of these impairments. 2000. 1998). 2003). 2001). Williams et al. 2001). Frith. Though the original studies were performed in the macaque.. 2000. but recent studies suggest that they may also play a critical role in higher order cognitive processes such as imitation (Ramachandran. Oberman et al. 1989. language (Ramachandran. Though many theories exist.. Baron-Cohen. and empathy) (DSM-IV-TR). 1995). the most parsimonious theories are those that are able to link neuroanatomical impairments and functional mechanisms to the multiple behavioral impairments that are unique in ASD. Mirror neurons are primarily thought to be involved in perception and comprehension of motor actions. impairments in pragmatic language. originally discovered in area F5 of the macaque premotor cortex. there is now strong evidence suggesting that a comparable system exists in the homologous region (Broca’s Area) of the human premotor cortex (Fadiga et al. One recent theory... which does exactly this.g. Rizzolatti and Arbib. the mirror neuron system underlies the behavioral impairments in ASD (Altschuler et al.. (Di Pellegrino et al. Rizzolatti et al. all of which are characteristically impaired in individuals with autism spectrum disorders (Bacon et al. 1992) is characterized by its response to both observed and performed actions. imitation. .. suggests that a dysfunction in a specific functional system. Rogers et al. The hypothesis that the mirror neuron system is involved in both sensory motor integration as well as cognitive and social skills makes it an ideal candidate mechanism to investigate in autism.. and empathy (Carr et al.

Thus. 2005a. regions such as Broca’s area (which later would be identified as one of the regions thought to contain mirror neurons) that are critical to speech production will respond.. 2004. lips.Deficits in Multisensory Integration -.. 2005) and empathy (Dapretto et al.. namely metaphor comprehension has also been investigated (Oberman et al. 2005). 1985). .4 There is now a large amount of evidence for the theory linking a dysfunction in the mirror neuron system to the behavioral deficits in autism in the domains of imitation (Altschuler et al. The first suggestion that a mirror-like system was involved in language processing came from a theory presented in 1985 (prior to the discovery of the mirror neuron system) called the ‘motor theory of speech perception’ (Liberman and Mattingly.. in the perception of language in typically developing individuals. Theoret et al. However. evidence for the role of Broca’s Area. and tongue. Liberman and Mattingly propose that the objects of speech perception are the “phonetic gestures” that are represented in the brain of the observer as motor commands that signal movements of the mouth. in press). however.. 2005b) a thorough review of the literature failed to produce a single experimental study linking a dysfunction in the mirror neuron system with impairments in language processing in autism. 2000. Oberman et al. Nishitani et al. thought to be the human homologue to area F5 in monkeys. There is. Though the link between autism and mirror neurons has been supported through research in multiple laboratories and the link between the mirror neuron system and specific aspects of language that are characteristically impaired in autism. as an observer processes spoken language.. it is still a fairly young debate and arguments against these findings have been published as well (Hamilton et al..

functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) and transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) studies.. We suggest that just as the MNS contains neurons with shared observation and execution representations. TMS studies find increased MEP in the lips and tongue while subjects listened to or visually observed speech as compared to non-speech sounds or movements during stimulation of the left motor cortex (Fadiga et al. 2002. 2004. 2004).. Though Arbib’s theory proposes that proto-language evolved from proto-sign (a primitive gestural language system). Hauk and colleagues find evidence that reading sentences that related to hand. 2005). 2003). 2004). and head actions activated somatotopically distinct regions of sensorimotor cortex based on the effector that would be used to perform the action (Hauk et al. Another study by Wilson and colleagues show speech production areas respond during the listening of speech sounds (Wilson et al. Finally.. fMRI evidence supports activation of superior temporal sulcus as well as the inferior frontal gyrus (core regions of the mirror neuron system) in response to both the sight and sound of human speech (Calvert et al.Deficits in Multisensory Integration -. In a series of EEG and fMRI studies. Given these findings.5 Evidence for the involvement of the motor system in speech perception comes from electroencephalography (EEG). Additionally. Hauk and Pulvermuller. it does not explain how specific sounds are mapped onto objects. Watkins et al. that similarly there may be systems with shared . researchers are beginning to draw connections from the action-related mirror neuron system to the utilization of this system for communication (for a review see Arbib. Arbib (2005) outlines a theory describing how the MNS evolved from a manual action recognition system in the primate to being involved in verbal language in the human.. leg. 2001)..

These regions may mediate the shared representation between the auditory perception of the sound and the motor representation of the mouth and larynx movement required to make the sound. do not make these associations (Ramachandran et al. 2001). Though the neural structures involved in this proposed system are currently unknown specific multisensory regions of cortex including Broca’s area and Superior Temporal Sulcus are likely involved.. patients with lesions to the Angular Gyrus. One task which highlights the involvement of sensorimotor processes in language and may support the role of mirror neuron-like processes is the “Bouba-Kiki task”. results suggest that an overwhelming majority of participants match the sound of the name with the visual form of the nonsense shape. For example. a region of the Inferior Parietal Lobule located in the Temporal-Parietal-Occipital junction. Though typical individuals show this match between the nonsense shape and nonsense name. 95% of people will pick the jagged shape as kiki and the rounded amoeboid shape as bouba (Ramachandran and Hubbard. the Angular Gyrus may also be . originally described by German-American psychologist Wolfgang Köhler (Köhler. This task.6 representations of mouth and larynx movements and visual and auditory sensory perceptions that explains the nonarbitrary associations between objects and their names. The aforementioned studies provide evidence for the activation of Broca’s area and Superior Temporal Sulcus during the perception of human speech. Given this finding. When this task is performed on neurotypical adults. 1929. if they are shown the top row of shapes in Figure 1 and asked to identify which of the shapes is “bouba” and which is “kiki”. 1947) requires participants to name nonsense shapes. 2005).Deficits in Multisensory Integration -.

As the regions of the cortex hypothesized to be involved in the Bouba-Kiki task (Broca’s area. SD=1. All of the children with ASD were independently diagnosed by a clinician as well as characterized at the time of testing using the Autism Diagnostic Observation Schedule Revised (ADOS-R) (Lord et al.3 for both groups): 20 neurotypical children and 10 high-functioning children with autism spectrum disorder. All children were recruited from the community.8). an IQ lower than 80. SD 9..8. .1. Children with ASD with comorbidity with other disorders (including ADD and Specific Language Impairment). Method Subjects Our sample consisted of 30 children (age M=9. or below age appropriate receptive language skills were excluded from the study. defined as having age appropriate receptive language skills as well as an IQ above 80 (within two standard deviations of the population mean) on the Weschler Abbreviated Scale of Intelligence (WASI) (ASD M=106.7 involved in multisensory integration of visual/auditory perception and language/motor representations. Superior Temporal Gyrus and Angular Gyrus) overlap with those of the MNS and there is much evidence for an impairment in the MNS in individuals with ASD. All participants were male and native English speakers with normal or corrected to normal vision and no history of hearing impairments. SD=15.Deficits in Multisensory Integration -. They were considered high functioning. Control M=107. 1999) to confirm current symptomatology.5. the current study seeks investigate whether high functioning children with autism show a difference in performance on this task as compared to neurotypical control participants.7.

five two-way chi square analyses were conducted on the number of participants in each group who paired the nonsense shape with the predetermined corresponding name and responses where the nonsense shape was paired with the predetermined noncorresponding name for each pair of stimuli. Pairs of shapes were designed to have corresponding nonsense words based on similarities between the auditory and visual forms. “In Martian language one of these shapes is a [corresponding or noncorresponding word] while the other is a [corresponding or noncorresponding word]. Procedure Participants were presented with five pairs of nonsense shapes (figure 1) and five pairs of nonsense “words” created by the research team.8 Control participants were age and gender matched to the ASD group. Data Analysis In order to understand the difference in performance on this task.Deficits in Multisensory Integration -. The order of corresponding and noncorresponding words was counterbalanced. The study was conducted individually with the experimenter sitting across the table from the participant to ensure that the individual understood the instructions and remained on task. This analysis was then followed up with two sets of five one-way chi square analyses to investigate whether each group’s proportion of corresponding and noncorresponding . The five resulting chi square values (with one degree of freedom) were then added together to form a chi square with five degrees of freedom. The experimenter then asked the participant. The project protocol was reviewed and approved by the UCSD Human Research Protections Program and all subjects gave written consent. which one is which?” The participant responded by indicating their choice on a response sheet.

18. there was not a significant difference in performance between the ASD and control group on the Matrices subtest (t(28) = -. (Table 1).1. Additional analyses revealed that proportion of corresponding responses did not significantly correlate with full-scale IQ (r=0.33. In fact. p>0.9. p>0.98) (Figure 2.9). Additionally. SD= Follow-up analyses revealed that while the number of neurotypical individuals giving corresponding and noncorresponding responses is significantly different than chance (50%) (χ2 (5) = 36. p>0.Deficits in Multisensory Integration -.20).2. Control M=106. SD=16.07) of participants.4) or verbal IQ subscale (t(28) = -0.001). p>0.606.9 responses were significantly different from chance. p> 0.001).1. Matrices subtest of the WASI (r=0.058.2. Again. Figure 3). Control M=52. p>0.56.95) of the WASI. p>0.7) and the Verbal IQ subscale (ASD M= 107. the ASD group’s pattern was not different than chance (χ2 (5) = 0.30) or Age (r=0.18. p<0. Results The two-way chi square revealed a significant difference between the number of participants in the control group who gave corresponding responses and noncorresponding responses as compared to the ASD group (χ2 (5) = 21. the five chi square values from each of these sets of analyses were combined to form one chi square value with five degrees of freedom. SD=11. Verbal IQ subscale of the WASI (r=0. the ASD group performed slightly better than the control participants on both the Matrices subtest (ASD M=55.24. .20). p<0. SD=8.

but rather their responses appeared to be random. The Matrices subtest of the WASI requires that the individual provide a missing piece to a pattern composed of shapes. Given that the ASD group performed well on this task. or impaired verbal ability. The additional finding that there was no significant difference in performance between the two groups on the Matrices subtest or the Verbal IQ subscale of the WASI suggests that the poor performance on the Bouba-Kiki task is not likely to be a result of impaired attention. Angular Gyrus or Superior Temporal Sulcus may play a role in the language deficits seen in children with ASD. but their responses were not significantly above chance. The results support the hypothesis that multisensory integrative brain systems including a mirror-like system in Broca’s area. that only requires a single modality. We have previously suggested that the reason why neurotypical individuals pick the jagged shape as kiki and the rounded amoeboid shape as bouba is that the sharp changes in visual direction of the lines in the jagged figure mimics the sharp phonemic inflections of the sound kiki. impaired perception of patterns and shapes. provides further evidence that the dysfunction is in cross-modal processing.10 Discussion This is the first study to directly investigate the role of multisensory integration skills in the language deficits of ASD. Not only were children with ASD less likely to choose the name that corresponded with the nonsense shape compared to neurotypical children. This later finding indicates that unlike neurotypical children (and adults) there is no evidence that the children with ASD use any type of multisensory integrative process to determine names for nonsense shapes.Deficits in Multisensory Integration -. as well as the sharp inflection of the tongue on the palate .

Also. Speaking the words such as “little”. 1961). an impairment in functional connectivity. This type of multisensory integration may be based on cross-activation between auditory sensory representations and motor representations in Broca’s area creating a natural bias toward mapping certain sound contours onto certain vocalizations.Deficits in Multisensory Integration -. Anecdotal examples of this natural tendency can be observed in the motor gestures performed when referring to something small or large.g. Recent studies have found abnormalities in auditory processing in . several neural impairments could be leading to the deficit in this task. There is evidence supporting impairments in these three functional mechanisms in individuals with ASD. French ‘tu’ or ‘vous’ and Tamil ‘thoo’). An impairment in auditory processing. when referring to ‘you’ speakers produce a partial outward pout with my lips (as in English ‘you’. If it is assumed that this task requires joint activation of auditory representations and motor representations. Cross-cultural studies reveal that this is not simply an effect of the shape of the letters in the nonsense name (e.11 while the rounded shape of the amoeboid figure mimics the more smooth phonemic inflections of the sound bouba and the motor movements of the lips. “petite”. as well as an impairment in MSI regions including Broca’s area or Angular Gyrus or a combination of all three could lead to the deficits observed in this study. Bouba is round because of the round form of the B and Kiki is not spiky because of the shape of the K) as the same effect is seen in languages with different alphabets (Davis. my lips and tongue move inwards (as in English ‘me’. or “teeny” results in an unconscious narrowing of the vocal tracts and lips while the words “large” or “enormous” results in the opposite effect. French ‘moi’ and Tamil ‘naan’). whereas when referring to ‘me’.

metaphor. 2000). 2004. Though previous studies have suggested that multisensory integrative processes are typically used in language processing. 1999. Results from this study cannot speak to this possibility. Just et al. 2006. 1993. Additionally..Deficits in Multisensory Integration -. 2003).. Further.. Hadjikhani et al. As this study was strictly behavioral.. Zilbovicious et al. 2001.. Finally. abnormally low levels of functional connectivity (Just et al.. Khalfa et al. Though the participants in this study scored in the normal range on measures of verbal IQ. 2001. Villalobos et al. the neural system underlying the observed behavioral deficits can only be speculated. there appears to be hypoperfusion of the temporal cortex including associative auditory and multimodal regions (Zilbovicious et al. the current study suggests that multisensory integration is critical for normal development of language. it is likely that multisensory processes are involved in the more complex pragmatic aspects of language such as prosody. Plaisted et al. However. 2005) as well as hypoplasia and delayed maturation of frontal regions including inferior frontal gyrus regions (Abell et al. it is possible that the participants with ASD categorized these nonsense shapes based on different criteria than the control participants leading to different associations with the words..12 individuals with ASD (Collet et al.. 1995). their paradoxically high score is likely a result of compensatory systems as qualitative impairments in language development is a core feature of ASD.... and the use of language for social interaction (not measured with standardized verbal IQ tests). the exact aspects of language processing that are impaired in verbal children with ASD. the MNS does provide a good .Gomot et al. as children with ASD show a lack of multisensory integration as evidenced by their performance on this task. 2004.

a larger sample. . given that this was the first study to investigate the hypothesis that multisensory integrative processes may play a role in the language impairments seen in individuals with ASD.13 candidate to investigate given its location in Broca’s area. further studies including more stimuli. and neuroimaging will be necessary to corroborate this finding. the presence of multisensory neurons which integrate auditory and visual sensory information with motor representation.Deficits in Multisensory Integration -. and the previous evidence for its involvement in language perception. Based on the deficits we have seen in the Bouba-kiki task in ASD. we suggest that such stimuli could be introduced as a valuable experimental probe for exploring inter-sensory abstraction in a variety of other neurological and psychological syndromes. Additionally.

The solid gray bars represent the proportion of neurotypical participants while the striped bars represent the proportion of ASD participants. “Wow”/“Bloop” for the left and right figures respectively. “Rrrr”/“Eeesh”. Solid squares represent neurotypical participants while open circles represent participants with ASD.5). . The black line indicates the proportion of corresponding responses that would be expected if the child randomly assigned the name to the shape (0. top to bottom) “Bouba”/“Kiki”.14 Table & Figure Captions Table 1 – Number of participants in each group who gave corresponding responses for each pair of stimuli.Deficits in Multisensory Integration -.5). Figure 1 – An example of the stimuli used in the experiment. “Mmmm”/“Shhh”. Figure 2 – Proportion of participants in each group who chose the corresponding name for each pair of stimuli. Figure 3 – Proportion of corresponding responses given by each participant. The corresponding names for the figures are (left/right. “Ohmmm”/“Mmmao”. The black line indicates the proportion of participants expected to give the corresponding response assuming no relationship between name and shape (simply by chance) (0.

Deficits in Multisensory Integration--15 Table 1 Bouba/Kiki Shhh/Mmmm Ohmmm/Mmmao Eeesh/Rrrr Wow/Bloop ASD (n=10) Neurotypical (n=20) 6 19 6 18 5 17 6 19 5 15 .

Deficits in Multisensory Integration--16 Figure 1 .

8 0.Deficits in Multisensory Integration--17 Figure 2 1 0.2 0.4 0.5 Neurotypical ASD 0.7 0.1 0 1 2 3 4 5 .6 0.3 0.9 0.

1 1 0.3 0.4 0.8 0.1 0 0 5 10 15 20 25 30 .6 Control 0.9 0.5 ASD 0.2 0.7 0.Deficits in Multisensory Integration--18 Figure 3 1.

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