What is a Rewarding Reward?
A gift voucher for the cinema, praise from your parents, or nothing at all: rewards are regarded as desirable to a different extent. In a study by University Hospital Aachen's Department of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, Psychosomatics, and Psychotherapy, JARA-BRAIN scientists recently investigated which incentives had an effect on healthy test subjects, as well as on patients with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and autism. The findings will help to tailor treatment as closely as possible to the needs of certain groups of patients.
People with ADHD frequently display behaviour that is very similar to that of patients with autism. They are impulsive, inattentive, and have difficulty with social skills. Therapists work with patients affected by both disorders in order to help them behave appropriately in social interactions. Although the two groups of patients display similar behaviour, their therapists have to offer them different incentives. This is shown by the combined behavioural and functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) study “Differentiating neural reward responsiveness in autism versus ADHD” by Dr. Gregor Kohls and other JARA-BRAIN scientists. The study was funded by the International Research Training Group "Schizophrenia and Autism" (IRTG 1328) and performed at Forschungszentrum Jülich.
Rewards increase success rate
"Our study included a group of patients with autism, a group with ADHD, and a healthy control group," says Gregor Kohls. All participants were male and aged between 9 and 18 years to ensure comparability. In the fMRI scanner, they had to complete a task in a certain time and for doing so they subsequently either received a financial or social reward, or no reward at all. Although there was no difference in the speed with which the task was completed, the success rate in the case of a subsequent reward increased significantly for all three groups.
Different activation in the motivation centre
In contrast to the same result on the behavioural level, the neurobiological reactions in the brains of the three groups of participants differed greatly depending on the type of reward. "In the case of the control group, we found the strongest activation in the ventral striatum, the centre of the motivation system, when money was offered. Social rewards in the form of praise and recognition were regarded as relatively less worth having," explains Gregor Kohls. Compared to this, the ADHD patients displayed a similar level of activity in this region of the brain for both types of reward. Greatly reduced activity was observed in the motivation centres of the autistic group – irrespective of whether money, praise, or nothing at all was on offer.
Patients with autism need incentives tailored to their interests
"People with autism frequently have special interests," adds Gregor Kohls from JARA-BRAIN. "They are not very interested in money or social recognition, but sometimes in a special toy, non-fiction book, or computer game." This should be taken into consideration in innovative therapeutic approaches, for example in interaction training. "Patients with autism experience increased motivation if the reward corresponds to their canon of values, which can contribute to improving the success of treatment in the long term."
Picture: JARA-BRAIN scientists recently investigated which incentives had an effect on healthy test subjects, as well as on patients with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and autism. (Foto: shutterstock/Thinglass)