Contextual determinants of surprise in health, development and disorder

Year of award: 2017


  • Dr Rebecca Lawson

    University of Cambridge

Project summary

A new hypothesis suggests that people with autism might struggle to make sense of the world because their brains do not form the correct expectation for a given situation, resulting in constant mild surprise. Imagine, for example, how surprising the first taste of a lemon might be if you expected it to taste sweet like other fruits. New evidence suggests this might be explained by mathematical models that describe how surprises are computed and the action of brain chemicals, called neuromodulators, which signal when something unexpected has happened. However, more work is needed to understand the brain processes that underpin surprise, how these brain differences develop and also how they differ across disorders.

We will use brain imaging to better understand how neuromodulators signal surprise in healthy volunteers. We will also measure the surprise response in the brains of babies to see if this can predict emergence of autism symptoms. We will also examine whether measuring surprise responses enables autism to be distinguished from related neuropsychiatric conditions.