Speech bubble formed by a network of communication

Illustration by Laurène Boglio
Illustration by Laurène Boglio

Community Newsletter: Confounding head motion; monkey moves; motor speech in autism

Moving into the new year, researchers on Twitter talked about motion as a confounder for brain-imaging studies, connections between macaque brain activity and body movements, and the importance of motor-speech research in autism.

Welcome back to Spectrum’s Community Newsletter, our first in 2023. Researchers kept the conversation on Twitter motoring along over the holidays and this week we’re highlighting three threads tied to movement.

A new method dubbed SHAMAN — for Split Half Analysis of Motion Associated Networks —can help researchers who have conducted certain brain-imaging experiments determine if their observed “brain-behavior correlation was affected by head motion,” tweeted study investigator Benjamin Kay, assistant professor of neurology at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis.

The approach, described in a bioRxiv preprint in December, reveals whether “trait-functional connectivity (FC) correlations are biased by residual motion artifact in order to avoid reporting false positive results,” Kay and his colleagues wrote.

In a reply, Vince Calhoun, founding director of Translational Research in Neuroimaging and Data Science in Atlanta, Georgia, wondered if the method might incorrectly flag certain effects because it assumes “that the repertoire of behaviorally relevant (and irrelevant) FC is unchanged (& evenly sampled) in different subsets of data.”

“You’ve articulated a key assumption underpinning motion impact score,” replied Kay, who agreed that it represents a potential obstacle to using SHAMAN for functional MRI studies involving a motor task, but not for resting-state scans.

Matthew Heindel, a graduate student at University of Southern California in Los Angeles, tweeted that the tasks he often uses in his research “are particularly prone to motion artifact that’s correlated with the task, and extensively evaluating this relationship is essential.”

Switching gears to another movement-related study, researchers also recently investigated “the effects of spontaneous movements on cognitive processing in the macaque cortex,” tweeted Camille Testard, a graduate student in Michael Platt’s lab at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia.

Testard and her colleagues recorded brain activity and body movements in unrestrained monkeys performing cognitive tasks and found that the two measures were closely tied: “neural variance is in large part explained by movement, and movements largely align with task variables,” Testard wrote. This correlation suggests that movement, as well as restricting it, can potentially confound neurophysiological studies of cognition, she concluded. Instead of restraining animals during brain imaging, their movements “should be monitored to disentangle cognitive signals from movement signals in monkeys!”

This result “adds to the debate launched by @anne_churchland et al in mice,” wrote Platt in response to a tweet from Testard that shared a link to the preprint in September 2022.

Yet another study highlighted on Twitter over the holidays implicated motor areas in the brain in autistic children’s “reduced phonological working memory as measured by nonword repetition,” tweeted Zhenghan Qi, assistant professor of communication sciences and disorders and psychology at Northeastern University in Boston, Massachusetts.

“We found reduced & atypical speech-motor system activation related to phonological working memory difficulties for autistic children,” tweeted study investigator Amanda O’Brien, a graduate student at Harvard University.

“Fascinating study highlighting why we need more research focused on motor speech in autism!” tweeted Camille Wynn, assistant professor of communication sciences and disorders at the University of Houston in Texas.

That’s it for this week’s Community Newsletter! If you have any suggestions for interesting social posts you saw in the autism research sphere, feel free to send an email to [email protected].

Follow us on Facebook, Twitter (@Spectrum), Instagram and LinkedIn.

Subscribe to get the best of Spectrum straight to your inbox.