Stories about: Labs of Cognitive Neuroscience

Strengthening the brain’s executive function in autism

gaming autism executive function
Thomas Ryan with Susan Faja during a baseline assessment

Thomas is feeding virtual bananas to virtual monkeys. If the banana is yellow, he presses the computer’s arrow key to feed it to the monkey. If it’s brown, he’s supposed to just wait for the next banana. “Good job, you really watched carefully,” says Susan Faja, PhD, who’s coaching him through the task.

In the next round, Thomas has to throw bananas in the trash—but only the brown ones. “Oops, I threw a good banana away!” Thomas exclaims. “No worries,” Faja reassures him, “let’s try and remember the new rule on the next one.”

Being able to inhibit impulses—even small ones—is one aspect of what’s called executive function, a set of cognitive skills that allow us to manage complex or conflicting information, solve more nuanced problems and fine-tune our behavior. Executive function also includes the ability to plan, hold information in mind, and shift flexibly between different rules in different situations. And Faja thinks that strengthening executive function could help children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) function better socially.

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