CeNEC - Center for the Neuroscience of Embodied Cognition


Our bodies are one of the most fundamental ways we understand ourselves, the world, and other people. Our metaphors relay this knowledge: we feel with our gut; we love with our heart; we toss ideas as if with our hands.

Our program explores the idea that rudimentary sensory-motor brain regions, which may have been originally designed for processing our own body states, may be intrinsically involved in processing aspects of higher cognition. These include language, thought, emotions, empathy, and social understanding.

For more information please visit the CeNEC Website

Our current projects are as follows:

From Sensory-Motor to Social in Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD): Children with ASD often have both motor and sensory deficits in addition to the social deficits that are the hallmark of the disorder.  However the neurological basis of how those sensorimotor deficits relate to the core social deficits is poorly understood.  Here we compare motor deficits in ASD to motor deficits in Developmental Coordination Disorder (DCD). Similarly, we compare sensory deficits in ASD to sensory deficits in Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD). In this way, we hope to better understand the relationship between sensory-motor processing to social deficits in ASD.  This work is supported by an NIH R01 grant.
To participate in this study, please see: https://chan.usc.edu/minds

Relationship between the Gut Microbiome, the Brain, and Behavior: The gut has three times more neurons than the spinal cord, and most of those connections send information from the gut to the brain. Much of the signaling in the gut comes from metabolites produced by the gut microbiome. However the relationship between the gut microbiome, the brain, and behavior is poorly understood. Here we try to better understand this relationship in both typically developing individuals as well as individuals with ASD. This work is supported by a grant from the Department of Defense.
To participate in this study, please see: https://chan.usc.edu/minds

Embodied Semantics and communication:  Most of our metaphors are embodied: we “handle” situations; we “kick-off” a new year; we “chew over” decisions. Using fMRI and behavioral studies we explore how language processing involves sensorimotor brain representations. We investigate both literal and metaphorical language. This work has been funded by IARPA and NIH.

Otherness and Belonging: Belonging is a fundamental relationship grounded in the interaction between an organism and its world. It is always a multi-directional relation where the world includes the social, physical, emotional, and cultural environment available to the organism. For human beings, belonging is a critical factor both in the creation and in the perception of meaning in life. It is just as important as food or water for our survival and well-being. A lack of belonging is an existential breakage in a human being’s relationship to their environment and to the world, and is a fundamental human need (Maslow, 1943). From an evolutionary perspective, the predisposition to belong is central to human existence and culture. Personality traits that motivate individuals to gain acceptance and avoid rejection are indispensable tools enabling survival and reproduction.

The goal of the current project is to understand the basic science underlying the human need and the multiple dimensions of belonging, and to provide data on bridging strategies that mitigate the feeling of otherness. Data generated by this project will inform intervention strategies. It is a collaboration between the USC CeNEC lab, the UC Berkeley Othering and Belonging Institute, and Google.



Lisa Aziz-Zadeh, PhD

Aditya "AJ" Jayashankar, MS

Sofronia Ringold, BA




Kilroy, E., Gerbella, M., Cao, L., Molfese, P., Butera, C., Harrison, L., Jayashankar, A., Rizzolatti, G., & Aziz-Zadeh, L. (2022). Specific tractography differences in autism compared to developmental coordination disorder. Scientific Reports, 12, 19246. https://doi.org/10.1038/s41598-022-21538-0

Ringold, S.M.; McGuire, R.W.; Jayashankar, A.; Kilroy, E.; Butera, C.D.; Harrison, L.; Cermak, S.A.; Aziz-Zadeh, L. Sensory Modulation in Children with Developmental Coordination Disorder Compared to Autism Spectrum Disorder and Typically Developing Children. Brain Sci. 2022, 12, 1171. https://doi.org/10.3390/brainsci12091171

Butera, C. D., Harrison, L., Kilroy, E., Jayashankar, A., Shipkova, M., Pruyser, A., & Aziz-Zadeh, L. (2022). Relationships between alexithymia, interoception, and emotional empathy in autism spectrum disorder. Autism. https://doi.org/10.1177/13623613221111310

Aziz-Zadeh, L. (2022). Summer book review: Existential Physics. Science. https://doi.org/10.1126/science.abq6526

Kilroy, E., Ring, P., Hossain, A., Nalbach, A., Butera, C., Harrison, L., Jayashankar, A., Vigen, C., Aziz-Zadeh, L. & Cermak, S. A. (2022). Motor performance, praxis, and social skills in autism spectrum disorder and developmental coordination disorder. Autism Research. https://doi.org/10.1002/aur.2774

Borelli, E., Butera, C., Katirai, A., Adams, T. C., & Aziz-Zadeh, L. (2022). Impact of motor stroke on novel and conventional action metaphor comprehension. Brain and Language, 226, 105081. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.bandl.2022.105081


Chernikova, M. A., Flores, G. D., Kilroy, E., Labus, J. S., Mayer, E. A., & Aziz-Zadeh, L. (2021). The brain-gut-microbiome system: pathways and implications for autism spectrum disorder. Nutrients, 13(12), 4497. https://doi.org/10.3390/nu13124497

Harrison, L. A., Kats, A., Kilroy, E., Butera, C., Jayashankar, A., Keles, U., & Aziz-Zadeh, L. (2021). Motor and sensory features successfully decode autism spectrum disorder and combine with the original RDoC framework to boost diagnostic classification. Scientific reports, 11(1), 1-16. https://doi.org/10.1038/s41598-021-87455-w

Kilroy, E., Harrison, L., Butera, C., Jayashankar, A., Cermak, S., Kaplan, J., Williams, M., Haranin, E., Bookheimer, S., Dapretto, M. & Aziz-Zadeh, L. (2021). Unique deficit in embodied simulation in autism: An fMRI study comparing autism and developmental coordination disorder. Human brain mapping, 42(5), 1532-1546. https://doi.org/10.1002/hbm.25312


Butera, C., Ring, P., Sideris, J., Jayashankar, A., Kilroy, E., Harrison, L., Cermak, S., & Azizā€Zadeh, L. (2020). Impact of sensory processing on school performance outcomes in high functioning individuals with autism spectrum disorder. Mind, Brain, and Education, 14(3), 243–254. https://doi.org/10.1111/mbe.12242


Kilroy, E., Cermak, SA, Aziz-Zadeh, L. A review of functional and structural neurobiology of the action observation network in autism spectrum disorder and developmental coordination disorder. Brain Sciences 9(4). pii: E75. doi: 10.3390/brainsci9040075.

Kilroy, E., Aziz-Zadeh, L. Cermak, SA. Ayres Theories of Autism and Sensory Integration Revisited: What Contemporary Neuroscience Has to Say. Brain Sci. 2019 Mar 21;9(3). pii: E68. doi: 10.3390/brainsci9030068.

Harrison LA, Kats A, Williams ME, Aziz-Zadeh L. The importance of sensory processing in mental health: A proposed addition to the research domain criteria (RDoC) and suggestions for RDoC 2.0 Front Psychol. 2019 Feb 5;10:103. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2019.00103


Aziz-Zadeh, L., Kilroy, E.*, Corcelli, G. Understanding activation patterns in shared circuits: Toward a value driven model. Frontiers in Human Neurosci. 12:180.

Liew, S-L, Garrison, K.*, Ito, K., Heydari, P.*, Sobhani, M.*, Werner, J.*, Damasio, H., Winstein, C.J., Aziz-Zadeh, L. Laterality of post-stroke cortical motor activity during action observation is related to hemispheric dominance Neural Plasticity.

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