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The typical and atypical development of the social brain

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Abstract: I will address the question of the emergence of the “social brain” network during both typical and atypical human development. A brief overview of evidence from typical development highlights the importance of a sub-cortical brain route for orienting toward social stimuli over the first months of life. Following this, a prolonged process of increasing functional specialization of key cortical regions and their connectivity can be observed, consistent with activity-dependent processes (and the “Interactive Specialisation” framework). Turning to atypical development, a number of lines of evidence indicate that a key feature of diagnosed autism is a lack of specialization (tuning) of cortical structures in the social brain. But how does this atypical phenotypic end-state of human development arise? I review three causal developmental hypotheses in relation to evidence from longitudinal studies of infants at familial risk for later autism, and speculate that the causal pathway for autism lies in a common adaptive response of the brain to a range of different molecular and genetic threats to optimal synaptic function. By this view autism is not a disorder of neurodevelopment, but rather an ordered developmental response to an atypical neural processing starting state.

Biosketch: Professor MARK H . JOHNSON FBA is currently UK Medical Research Council Director of the Centre for Brain & Cognitive Development (CBCD) at Birkbeck, University of London. After obtaining a degree in Biology and Psychology from the University of Edinburgh (UK), and a PhD in neuroscience from Cambridge (UK), he held academic and research positions at University College London (1985-89 and 1994-98), University of Oregon, Eugene (1988-89), and Carnegie Mellon University, Pittsburgh (1990-95), before moving to Birkbeck to establish the CBCD in 1998. He has published over 300 papers and 10 books on brain and cognitive development in humans and other species, including the textbook “Developmental Cognitive Neuroscience” now in its 4th Edition. Currently his laboratory focuses on typical, at-risk and atypical functional brain development in human infants and toddlers using a variety of different neuroimaging, cognitive, behavioural, and genetic methods. Johnson coordinates several national and international collaborative scientific networks, and is a named fellow of the APS , BPS, Cognitive Science Society and British Academy (FBA).

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