Influences of Social Cognition and Reward on ASD Symptoms and Behavior in PWS

Funding Summary

Social cognition, or the ability to understand the thoughts and feelings of others, is impaired in PWS. Social reward circuitry (which places value on things in our environment) may also be altered. This impairment may contribute to oppositional behavior and ASD symptoms, which are common in PWS.

Dr. Gallagher is a child psychiatrist who studies social behaviors and social rewards circuitry in children with autism and neurodevelopmental disorders. In this project, her research team will carefully evaluate social cognition and social reward alterations in PWS using cognitive tests, clinical assessments (EEG, eye tracking), and biomarker studies. Specifically, they will look at how ASD symptoms are associated with and may contribute to oppositional behavior, and whether diminished social reward circuitry contributes to some of the behaviors in PWS.

This project will provide us with a better understanding of what drives social impairments and atypical behavior in PWS, which will lead to more effective interventions to improve social cognition and behavior.  

This project has been made possible through funding provided by FPWR-UK.

Dr. Theresa Strong, Director of Research Programs, shares details on this project in this short video clip.  


Watch the full webinar describing the 8 research projects funded in this grant cycle here


Lay Abstract

1/ Project summary;

Autism symptoms and atypical social behavior are prevalent and impairing in PWS.  Social cognition, which refers to the ability to perceive and understand the thoughts and feelings of other people, is impaired in ASD and is thought to underpin many of the social impairments in ASD. Studies suggest that social cognition is impaired in PWS but this has not been comprehensively evaluated and the relationship with ASD symptoms remains untested. Our project will determine if atypical social cognition underlies ASD symptoms in PWS and if it contributes to oppositional behaviours.   Next, this study will consider whether there is an effect of altered social reward processing in PWS that drives poor social understanding.  Reward circuitry, which responds and places values on things in our environment, is fundamentally impaired in PWS and contributes to hyperphagia. It is notable that ASD symptoms become more prominent in PWS in later childhood as hyperphagic symptoms are increasing. We think that this may be due to a shift away from social reward in brain circuitry. We will study if social reward has less value for people with PWS and if this is related to increased value of food. Finally we aim to create a bioresource that can be used locally and as part of global collaborative research to investigate genetic and molecular factors influencing reward processing.


2/ Why this research is important;

The FPWR Research Plan 2017-2021 has highlighted the creation of critical knowledge regarding the neurobiology of mental health symptoms. This project will address our gap in understanding the neurocognitive nature of ASD symptoms and atypical social behavior in PWS and how these contribute to behaviors of concern. It will provide knowledge as to whether core PWS deficits in reward underlie poor social functioning which may indicate that treatments targeted at hyperphagia will be effective for social behavior. Finally the study will provide measures that can be further validated as biomarkers of autism symptoms in PWS in treatment studies.


3/ Depending on the outcomes, what would be the next steps;

First, if social cognition impairments are driving ASD symptoms and oppositional behaviors, this will lead to research that seeks to treat these impairments using ASD specific or social cognition interventions in PWS. Second, the tests we undertake could be validated as biomarkers of social cognition and reward processing for use in clinical trials. Thirdly, the bioresource can be used to evaluate the molecular processes involved specifically in oxytocin function and link these to social behavior.


4/ How this project lays the foundation for therapeutic development;

This project can inform treatment approaches for ASD symptoms in PWS. It is clear that ASD symptoms are associated with greater impairments and targeting these will improve level of functioning and reduce oppositional behavior. The project will identify the role of reward in social behavior that can inform future clinical trials that impact on reward processing e.g. oxytocin.


Funded Year:


Awarded to:

Louise Gallagher




St. James Hospital


Louise Gallagher

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