Individuals with Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD) typically show impaired eye contact during social interactions. From a young age, they look less at faces than typically developing (TD) children and tend to avoid direct gaze. However, the reason for this behavior remains controversial; ASD children might avoid eye contact because they perceive the eyes as aversive or because they do not find social engagement through mutual gaze rewarding.
We monitored pupillary diameter as a measure of autonomic response in children with ASD (n = 20, mean age = 12.4) and TD controls (n = 18, mean age = 13.7) while they looked at faces displaying different emotions. Each face displayed happy, fearful, angry or neutral emotions with the gaze either directed to or averted from the subjects.
Overall, children with ASD and TD controls showed similar pupillary responses; however, they differed significantly in their sensitivity to gaze direction for happy faces. Specifically, pupillary diameter increased among TD children when viewing happy faces with direct gaze as compared to those with averted gaze, whereas children with ASD did not show such sensitivity to gaze direction. We found no group differences in fixation that could explain the differential pupillary responses. There was no effect of gaze direction on pupil diameter for negative affect or neutral faces among either the TD or ASD group.
We interpret the increased pupillary diameter to happy faces with direct gaze in TD children to reflect the intrinsic reward value of a smiling face looking directly at an individual. The lack of this effect in children with ASD is consistent with the hypothesis that individuals with ASD may have reduced sensitivity to the reward value of social stimuli.
Autism; Pupillary response; Reward processing
Direct gaze is a salient nonverbal signal for social interest and the intention to communicate. In particular, the duration of another's direct gaze can modulate our perception of the social meaning of gaze cues. However, both poor eye contact and deficits in social cognitive processing of gaze are specific diagnostic features of autism. Therefore, investigating neural mechanisms of gaze may provide key insights into the neural mechanisms related to autistic symptoms. Employing functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) and a parametric design, we investigated the neural correlates of the influence of gaze direction and gaze duration on person perception in individuals with high-functioning autism (HFA) and a matched control group. For this purpose, dynamically animated faces of virtual characters, displaying averted or direct gaze of different durations (1 s, 2.5 s and 4 s) were evaluated on a four-point likeability scale. Behavioral results revealed that HFA participants showed no significant difference in likeability ratings depending on gaze duration, while the control group rated the virtual characters as increasingly likeable with increasing gaze duration. On the neural level, direct gaze and increasing direct gaze duration recruit regions of the social neural network (SNN) in control participants, indicating the processing of social salience and a perceived communicative intent. In participants with HFA however, regions of the social neural network were more engaged by averted and decreasing amounts of gaze, while the neural response for processing direct gaze in HFA was not suggestive of any social information processing.
•We investigate the neural processing of gaze direction and duration in HFA.•We use a combined categorical and parametric approach to analyze fMRI data.•The social neural network is not modulated by direct gaze cues in HFA.•Persons with HFA are impaired in using subtle aspects of gaze to understand others.
Social gaze; Gaze duration; High-functioning autism; FMRI
Intuitive grasping of the meaning of subtle social cues is particularly affected in autism spectrum disorders (ASD). Despite their relevance in social communication, the effect of averted gaze in fearful faces in conveying a signal of environmental threat has not been investigated using real face stimuli in adults with ASD. Here, using functional MRI, we show that briefly presented fearful faces with averted gaze, previously shown to be a strong communicative signal of environmental danger, produce different patterns of brain activation than fearful faces with direct gaze in a group of 26 normally intelligent adults with ASD compared with 26 matched controls. While implicit cue of threat produces brain activation in attention, emotion processing and mental state attribution networks in controls, this effect is absent in individuals with ASD. Instead, individuals with ASD show activation in the subcortical face-processing system in response to direct eye contact. An effect of differences in looking behavior was excluded in a separate eye tracking experiment. Our data suggest that individuals with ASD are more sensitive to direct eye contact than to social signals of danger conveyed by averted fearful gaze.
This research focuses on the relationship between fragile X syndrome (FXS) and autism spectrum disorders (ASD). Both of these populations have a tendency to avoid looking others in the eye, along with difficulties in communication with others and tend to be socially withdrawn. While it is clear that FXS and ASD share some common abnormal behaviors, the underlying brain mechanisms associated with the social and emotional deficits in these groups remain unclear. We showed pictures of emotional and non-emotional human faces to these groups while in a magnetic resonance scanner (MRI). We collected images of brain function along with measures of where on the faces the individuals were looking (e.g. eyes or mouth). The FXS group showed a similar yet less abnormal pattern of where they were looking on the face compared to the ASD group. The FXS group also showed a similar pattern of decreased brain function in the area of the brain typically used when looking at faces, the fusiform gyrus (FG). The amount of activation in the FG was associated with how much time the FXS and ASD individuals looked at the eyes, the more they looked at the eyes, the greater the FG activation. The FXS group also displayed more brain activation than both the ASD group and a group of typically developing control subjects in brain areas that might suggest increased task difficulty for the FXS group. These group differences in brain activation are important as they suggest there is some overlap in areas of brain function in FXS and ASD when looking at faces, but that these two groups also have unique activation in other brain areas. These findings largely support the idea that ASD characteristics in FXS are associated with partially different patterns of brain activation when looking at human faces compared to individuals with ASD.
Fragile X syndrome (FXS) is the most commonly known genetic disorder associated with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). Overlapping features in these populations include gaze aversion, communication deficits, and social withdrawal. Although the association between FXS and ASD has been well documented at the behavioral level, the underlying neural mechanisms associated with the social/emotional deficits in these groups remain unclear.
We collected functional brain images and eye-gaze fixations from 9 individuals with FXS and 14 individuals with idiopathic ASD, as well as 15 typically developing (TD) individuals, while they performed a facial-emotion discrimination task.
The FXS group showed a similar yet less aberrant pattern of gaze-fixations compared to the ASD group. The FXS group also showed fusiform gyrus (FG) hypoactivation compared to the TD control group. Activation in FG was strongly and positively associated with average eye fixation and negatively associated with ASD characteristics in the FXS group. The FXS group displayed significantly greater activation than both the TD control and ASD groups in the left hippocampus (HIPP), left superior temporal gyrus (STG), right insula (INS), and left post-central gyrus (PCG).
These group differences in brain activation are important as they suggest unique underlying face-processing neural circuitry in FXS versus idiopathic ASD, largely supporting the hypothesis that ASD characteristics in FXS and idiopathic ASD reflect partially divergent impairments at the neural level, at least in FXS individuals without a co-morbid diagnosis of ASD.
fragile X syndrome; autism; face processing; brain function; fMRI
Persons with autism spectrum disorders (ASD) are known to have difficulty in eye contact (EC). This may make it difficult for their partners during face to face communication with them. To elucidate the neural substrates of live inter-subject interaction of ASD patients and normal subjects, we conducted hyper-scanning functional MRI with 21 subjects with autistic spectrum disorder (ASD) paired with typically-developed (normal) subjects, and with 19 pairs of normal subjects as a control. Baseline EC was maintained while subjects performed real-time joint-attention task. The task-related effects were modeled out, and inter-individual correlation analysis was performed on the residual time-course data. ASD–Normal pairs were less accurate at detecting gaze direction than Normal–Normal pairs. Performance was impaired both in ASD subjects and in their normal partners. The left occipital pole (OP) activation by gaze processing was reduced in ASD subjects, suggesting that deterioration of eye-cue detection in ASD is related to impairment of early visual processing of gaze. On the other hand, their normal partners showed greater activity in the bilateral occipital cortex and the right prefrontal area, indicating a compensatory workload. Inter-brain coherence in the right IFG that was observed in the Normal-Normal pairs (Saito et al., 2010) during EC diminished in ASD–Normal pairs. Intra-brain functional connectivity between the right IFG and right superior temporal sulcus (STS) in normal subjects paired with ASD subjects was reduced compared with in Normal–Normal pairs. This functional connectivity was positively correlated with performance of the normal partners on the eye-cue detection. Considering the integrative role of the right STS in gaze processing, inter-subject synchronization during EC may be a prerequisite for eye cue detection by the normal partner.
functional connectivity; hyperscanning; inter-subject coherence; joint attention; mutual gaze; autistic spectrum disorder; functional magnetic resonance imaging
Eye contact plays a key role in social interaction and is frequently reported to be atypical in individuals with autism spectrum conditions (ASCs). Despite the importance of direct gaze, previous functional magnetic resonance imaging in ASC has generally focused on paradigms using averted gaze. The current study sought to determine the neural processing of faces displaying direct and averted gaze in 18 males with ASC and 23 matched controls. Controls showed an increased response to direct gaze in brain areas implicated in theory-of-mind and gaze perception, including medial prefrontal cortex, temporoparietal junction, posterior superior temporal sulcus region, and amygdala. In contrast, the same regions showed an increased response to averted gaze in individuals with an ASC. This difference was confirmed by a significant gaze direction × group interaction. Relative to controls, participants with ASC also showed reduced functional connectivity between these regions. We suggest that, in the typical brain, perceiving another person gazing directly at you triggers spontaneous attributions of mental states (e.g. he is “interested” in me), and that such mental state attributions to direct gaze may be reduced or absent in the autistic brain.
autism; connectivity; eye gaze; theory-of-mind
We examined functional connectivity of the amygdala in preadolescent children with Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASDs) during spontaneous attention to eye-gaze in emotional faces. Children responded to a target word (“LEFT/RIGHT”) printed on angry or fearful faces looking in a direction that was congruent, incongruent, or neutral with the target word. Despite being irrelevant to the task, gaze-direction facilitated (Congruent > Neutral) or interfered with (Incongruent > Congruent) performance in both groups. Despite similar behavioral performance, amygdala-connectivity was atypical and more widespread in children with ASD. In control children, the amygdala was more strongly connected with an emotional cognitive control region (subgenual cingulate) during interference, while during facilitation, no regions showed greater amygdala connectivity than in ASD children. In contrast, in children with ASD the amygdala was more strongly connected to salience and cognitive control regions (posterior and dorsal cingulate) during facilitation and with regions involved in gaze processing (superior temporal sulcus), cognitive control (inferior frontal gyrus), and processing of viscerally salient information (pregenual cingulate, anterior insula, and thalamus) during interference. These findings showing more widespread connectivity of the amygdala extend past findings of atypical functional anatomy of eye-gaze processing in children with ASD and challenge views of general underconnectivity in ASD.
Autism spectrum disorders (ASD) are characterized by significant social impairments, including deficits in orienting attention following social cues. Behavioral studies investigating social orienting in ASD, however, have yielded mixed results, as the use of naturalistic paradigms typically reveals clear deficits whereas computerized laboratory experiments often report normative behavior. The present study is the first to examine the neural mechanisms underlying social orienting in ASD in order to provide new insight into the social attention impairments that characterize this disorder. Using fMRI, we examined the neural correlates of social orienting in children and adolescents with ASD and in a matched sample of typically developing (TD) controls while they performed a spatial cueing paradigm with social (eye gaze) and nonsocial (arrow) cues. Cues were either directional (indicating left or right) or neutral (indicating no direction), and directional cues were uninformative of the upcoming target location in order to engage automatic processes by minimizing expectations. Behavioral results demonstrated intact orienting effects for social and nonsocial cues, with no differences between groups. The imaging results, however, revealed clear group differences in brain activity. When attention was directed by social cues compared to nonsocial cues, the TD group showed increased activity in frontoparietal attention networks, visual processing regions, and the striatum, whereas the ASD group only showed increased activity in the superior parietal lobule. Significant group × cue type interactions confirmed greater responsivity in task-relevant networks for social cues than nonsocial cues in TD as compared to ASD, despite similar behavioral performance. These results indicate that, in the autistic brain, social cues are not assigned the same privileged status as they are in the typically developing brain. These findings provide the first empirical evidence that the neural circuitry involved in social orienting is disrupted in ASD and highlight that normative behavioral performance in a laboratory setting may reflect compensatory mechanisms rather than intact social attention.
autism; attention; functional magnetic resonance imaging; gaze; social cue
Electrophysiological recording in the anterior superior temporal sulcus (STS) of monkeys has demonstrated separate cell populations responsive to direct and averted gaze [1, 2]. Human functional imaging has demonstrated posterior STS activation in gaze processing, particularly in coding the intentions conveyed by gaze [3–6], but to date has provided no evidence of dissociable coding of different gaze directions. Because the spatial resolution typical of group-based fMRI studies (∼6–10 mm) exceeds the size of cellular patches sensitive to different facial characteristics (1–4 mm in monkeys), a more sensitive technique may be required. We therefore used fMRI adaptation, which is considered to offer superior resolution , to investigate whether the human anterior STS contains representations of different gaze directions, as suggested by non-human primate research. Subjects viewed probe faces gazing left, directly ahead, or right. Adapting to leftward gaze produced a reduction in BOLD response to left relative to right (and direct) gaze probes in the anterior STS and inferior parietal cortex; rightward gaze adaptation produced a corresponding reduction to right gaze probes. Consistent with these findings, averted gaze in the adapted direction was misidentified as direct. Our study provides the first human evidence of dissociable neural systems for left and right gaze.
Autism spectrum disorders (ASD) are often associated with impairments in judgment of facial expressions. This impairment is often accompanied by diminished eye contact and atypical amygdala responses to face stimuli. The current study used a within-subjects design to examine the effects of natural viewing and an experimental eye-gaze manipulation on amygdala responses to faces. Individuals with ASD showed less gaze toward the eye region of faces relative to a control group. Among individuals with ASD, reduced eye gaze was associated with higher threat ratings of neutral faces. Amygdala signal was elevated in the ASD group relative to controls. This elevated response was further potentiated by experimentally manipulating gaze to the eye region. Potentiation by the gaze manipulation was largest for those individuals who exhibited the least amount of naturally occurring gaze toward the eye region and was associated with their subjective threat ratings. Effects were largest for neutral faces, highlighting the importance of examining neutral faces in the pathophysiology of autism and questioning their use as control stimuli with this population. Overall, our findings provide support for the notion that gaze direction modulates affective response to faces in ASD.
fMRI; amygdala; face expressions; autism spectrum disorders; eye-tracking
Visual communication cues facilitate interpersonal communication. It is important that we look at faces to retrieve and subsequently process such cues. It is also important that we sometimes look away from faces as they increase cognitive load that may interfere with online processing. Indeed, when typically developing individuals hold face gaze it interferes with task completion. In this novel study we quantify face interference for the first time in Williams syndrome (WS) and Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). These disorders of development impact on cognition and social attention, but how do faces interfere with cognitive processing? Individuals developing typically as well as those with ASD (n = 19) and WS (n = 16) were recorded during a question and answer session that involved mathematics questions. In phase 1 gaze behaviour was not manipulated, but in phase 2 participants were required to maintain eye contact with the experimenter at all times. Looking at faces decreased task accuracy for individuals who were developing typically. Critically, the same pattern was seen in WS and ASD, whereby task performance decreased when participants were required to hold face gaze. The results show that looking at faces interferes with task performance in all groups. This finding requires the caveat that individuals with WS and ASD found it harder than individuals who were developing typically to maintain eye contact throughout the interaction. Individuals with ASD struggled to hold eye contact at all points of the interaction while those with WS found it especially difficult when thinking.
Individuals with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) often have difficulty with social-emotional cues. This study examined the neural, behavioral, and autonomic correlates of emotional face processing in adolescents with ASD and typical development (TD) using eye-tracking and event-related potentials (ERPs) across two different paradigms. Scanning of faces was similar across groups in the first task, but the second task found that face-sensitive ERPs varied with emotional expressions only in TD. Further, ASD showed enhanced neural responding to non-social stimuli. In TD only, attention to eyes during eye-tracking related to faster face-sensitive ERPs in a separate task; in ASD, a significant positive association was found between autonomic activity and attention to mouths. Overall, ASD showed an atypical pattern of emotional face processing, with reduced neural differentiation between emotions and a reduced relationship between gaze behavior and neural processing of faces.
Autism spectrum disorder; Eye-tracking; Event-related potentials; Pupillometry; Emotional face processing
Gaze processing deficits are a seminal, early, and enduring behavioral deficit in autism spectrum disorder (ASD); however, a comprehensive characterization of the neural processes mediating abnormal gaze processing in ASD has yet to be conducted.
This study investigated whole-brain patterns of neural synchrony during passive viewing of direct and averted eye gaze in ASD adolescents and young adults (M
= 16.6) compared to neurotypicals (NT) (M
= 17.5) while undergoing magnetoencephalography. Coherence between each pair of 54 brain regions within each of three frequency bands (low frequency (0 to 15 Hz), beta (15 to 30 Hz), and low gamma (30 to 45 Hz)) was calculated.
Significantly higher coherence and synchronization in posterior brain regions (temporo-parietal-occipital) across all frequencies was evident in ASD, particularly within the low 0 to 15 Hz frequency range. Higher coherence in fronto-temporo-parietal regions was noted in NT. A significantly higher number of low frequency cross-hemispheric synchronous connections and a near absence of right intra-hemispheric coherence in the beta frequency band were noted in ASD. Significantly higher low frequency coherent activity in bilateral temporo-parieto-occipital cortical regions and higher gamma band coherence in right temporo-parieto-occipital brain regions during averted gaze was related to more severe symptomology as reported on the Autism Diagnostic Interview-Revised (ADI-R).
The preliminary results suggest a pattern of aberrant connectivity that includes higher low frequency synchronization in posterior cortical regions, lack of long-range right hemispheric beta and gamma coherence, and decreased coherence in fronto-temporo-parietal regions necessary for orienting to shifts in eye gaze in ASD; a critical behavior essential for social communication.
Autism spectrum disorder; Eye gaze; Neural synchrony; Coherence; Magnetoencephalography; Social cognition
During face-to-face questioning, typically developing children and adults use gaze aversion (GA), away from their questioner, when thinking. GA increases with question difficulty and improves the accuracy of responses. This is the first study to investigate whether individuals with autism spectrum disorder (ASD; associated with reduced sociability and atypical face gaze) and Williams syndrome (WS; associated with hypersociability and atypical face gaze) use GA to manage cognitive load during face-to-face interactions.
Two studies were conducted exploring the typicality of GA during face-to-face questioning in (a) ASD and (b) WS.
In Study 1, children with ASD increased their GA as question difficulty increased. In addition, they used most GA when thinking about their responses to questions, mirroring evidence from typically developing children. An important atypicality for participants with ASD was a significantly higher level of GA when listening to interlocutors. In Study 2, participants with WS showed typical patterns of GA in relation to question difficulty and across different points of the interaction.
Two different neuro-developmental disorders, both characterized by significant problems with executive control of attention and atypicalities of social interactions, exhibited generally typical patterns of GA. All groups used most GA while thinking about questions, and increased their GA as questions got harder. In addition, children with ASD showed elevated levels of GA while listening to questions, but not while thinking about or making their responses, suggesting that they sometimes fail to see the relevance of attending to visual cues rather than actively avoiding them. Results have important implications for how professionals interpret GA in these populations and for social skills training.
Eye contact; gaze; Williams syndrome; gaze aversion; autism spectrum disorder
Eye tracking has been used to investigate gaze behaviours in individuals with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). However, traditional analysis has yet to find behavioural characteristics shared by both children and adults with ASD. To distinguish core ASD gaze behaviours from those that change with development, we examined temporo-spatial gaze patterns in children and adults with and without ASD while they viewed video clips. We summarized the gaze patterns of 104 participants using multidimensional scaling so that participants with similar gaze patterns would cluster together in a two-dimensional plane. Control participants clustered in the centre, reflecting a standard gaze behaviour, whereas participants with ASD were distributed around the periphery. Moreover, children and adults were separated on the plane, thereby showing a clear effect of development on gaze behaviours. Post hoc frame-by-frame analyses revealed the following findings: (i) both ASD groups shifted their gaze away from a speaker earlier than the control groups; (ii) both ASD groups showed a particular preference for letters; and (iii) typical infants preferred to watch the mouth rather than the eyes during speech, a preference that reversed with development. These results highlight the importance of taking the effect of development into account when addressing gaze behaviours characteristic of ASD.
eye tracking; eye movements; autism; development; mouth viewing; turn taking
Several recent studies have begun to examine the neurocognitive mechanisms involved in perceiving and responding to eye contact, a salient social signal of interest and readiness for interaction. Laboratory experiments measuring observers' responses to pictorial instead of live eye gaze cues may, however, only vaguely approximate the real-life affective significance of gaze direction cues. To take this into account, we measured event-related brain potentials and subjective affective responses in healthy adults while viewing live faces with a neutral expression through an electronic shutter and faces as pictures on a computer screen. Direct gaze elicited greater face-sensitive N170 amplitudes and early posterior negativity potentials than averted gaze or closed eyes, but only in the live condition. The results show that early-stage processing of facial information is enhanced by another person's direct gaze when the person is faced live. We propose that seeing a live face with a direct gaze is processed more intensely than a face with averted gaze or closed eyes, as the direct gaze is capable of intensifying the feeling of being the target of the other's interest and intentions. These results may have implications for the use of pictorial stimuli in the social cognition studies.
gaze direction; face perception; visual attention; event-related potentials; social cognition
Primates use gaze cues to follow peer gaze to an object of joint attention. Gaze following of monkeys is largely determined by head or face orientation. We used fMRI in rhesus monkeys to identify brain regions underlying head gaze following and to assess their relationship to the ‘face patch’ system, the latter being the likely source of information on face orientation. We trained monkeys to locate targets by either following head gaze or using a learned association of face identity with the same targets. Head gaze following activated a distinct region in the posterior STS, close to-albeit not overlapping with-the medial face patch delineated by passive viewing of faces. This ‘gaze following patch’ may be the substrate of the geometrical calculations needed to translate information on head orientation from the face patches into precise shifts of attention, taking the spatial relationship of the two interacting agents into account.
Gaze following—working out where someone else is looking, and then switching your attention to that position—is an important part of social behavior and learning. Additionally, it is thought to be an important step towards recognizing that others have a mind of their own. Humans mostly use eye position to work out the ‘gaze direction’ of someone else, whereas non-human primates rely instead on the orientation of the face. However, the neural circuits that control gaze following are thought to be similar in both.
Gaze following is a complex process that requires the brain to process a lot of different information. A face must be recognized, and its orientation worked out. A series of complex geometrical calculations must then be performed to work out the direction of the gaze, and how this relates to the position of the observer. Finally, the object of interest needs to be recognized and the attention of the observer focused on it.
In the monkey brain, there are six interconnected areas called face patch regions that respond when a monkey is shown a face. However, researchers do not understand how monkeys translate the information about face orientation gathered by these regions into information about where to look during gaze following.
Marciniak et al. performed functional magnetic resonance imaging on monkeys to track the flow of blood to different regions of the brain—the higher the blood flow, the more that area of the brain is working. To identify the location of their face patch regions, the monkeys first looked at faces. When the monkeys then performed a gaze following task, a region of the brain close to—but not overlapping—the face patches was activated. Marciniak et al. suggest this is the ‘gaze following patch’ where the brain performs the demanding calculations to translate face orientation into a position to look at.
As gaze following is important in social interactions, understanding the neural circuits behind it could help us understand social disorders.
macaque monkey; gaze following; joint attention; monkey fMRI; face patches; social attention; other
Visual behavior is known to be atypical in Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD). Monitor-based eye-tracking studies have measured several of these atypicalities in individuals with Autism. While atypical behaviors are known to be accentuated during natural interactions, few studies have been made on gaze behavior in natural interactions. In this study we focused on i) whether the findings done in laboratory settings are also visible in a naturalistic interaction; ii) whether new atypical elements appear when studying visual behavior across the whole field of view.
Ten children with ASD and ten typically developing children participated in a dyadic interaction with an experimenter administering items from the Early Social Communication Scale (ESCS). The children wore a novel head-mounted eye-tracker, measuring gaze direction and presence of faces across the child's field of view. The analysis of gaze episodes to faces revealed that children with ASD looked significantly less and for shorter lapses of time at the experimenter. The analysis of gaze patterns across the child's field of view revealed that children with ASD looked downwards and made more extensive use of their lateral field of view when exploring the environment.
The data gathered in naturalistic settings confirm findings previously obtained only in monitor-based studies. Moreover, the study allowed to observe a generalized strategy of lateral gaze in children with ASD when they were looking at the objects in their environment.
In the last few decades there has been increasing interest in the role of the amygdala in psychiatric disorders and, in particular, in its contribution to the socio-emotional impairments in autism spectrum disorders (ASDs). Given that the amygdala is a component structure of the “social brain,” several theoretical explanations compatible with amygdala dysfunction have been proposed to account for socio-emotional impairments in ASDs, including abnormal eye contact, gaze monitoring, face processing, mental state understanding, and empathy. Nevertheless, many theoretical accounts, based on the Amygdala Theory of Autism, fail to elucidate the complex pattern of impairments observed in this population, which extends beyond the social domain. As posited by the Relevance Detector theory (Sander et al., 2003), the human amygdala is a critical component of a brain circuit involved in the appraisal of self-relevant events that include, but are not restricted to, social stimuli. Here, we propose that the behavioral and social–emotional features of ASDs may be better understood in terms of a disruption in a “Relevance Detector Network” affecting the processing of stimuli that are relevant for the organism’s self-regulating functions. In the present review, we will first summarize the main literature supporting the involvement of the amygdala in socio-emotional disturbances in ASDs. Next, we will present a revised version of the Amygdala Relevance Detector hypothesis and we will show that this theoretical framework can provide a better understanding of the heterogeneity of the impairments and symptomatology of ASDs. Finally, we will discuss some predictions of our model, and suggest new directions in the investigation of the role of the amygdala within the more generally disrupted cortical connectivity framework as a model of neural organization of the autistic brain.
autism spectrum disorders; amygdala; ventromedial prefrontal cortex; self-relevance; social brain
Perceptual mechanisms are generally flexible or “adaptive”, as evidenced by perceptual aftereffects: distortions that arise following exposure to a stimulus. We examined whether adaptive mechanisms for coding gaze direction are atypical in children diagnosed with an autism spectrum condition. Twenty-four typical children and 24 children with autism, of similar age and ability, were administered a developmentally sensitive eye-gaze adaptation task. In the pre-adaptation phase, children judged whether target faces showing subtle deviations in eye-gaze direction were looking leftwards, rightwards or straight-ahead. Next, children were adapted to faces gazing in one consistent direction (25° leftwards/rightwards) before categorising the direction of the target faces again. Children with autism showed difficulties in judging whether subtle deviations in gaze were directed to the left, right or straight-ahead relative to typical children. Although adaptation to leftward or rightward gaze resulted in reduced sensitivity to gaze on the adapted side for both groups, the aftereffect was significantly reduced in children with autism. Furthermore, the magnitude of children's gaze aftereffects was positively related to their ability to categorise gaze direction. These results show that the mechanisms coding gaze are less flexible in autism and offer a potential new explanation for these children's difficulties discriminating subtle deviations in gaze direction.
•Adaptive mechanisms are fundamental for perceptual coding.•We found adaptation to gaze direction was significantly attenuated in autism.•The degree of adaptation was also linked to children's gaze acuity.•This study provides potential evidence for the functional benefits of adaptation.
Autism; Gaze; Adaptation; Aftereffect; Vision
Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD) are neurodevelopmental disorders characterised by impaired social interaction and communication, restricted interests and repetitive behaviours. The severity of these characteristics are posited to lie on a continuum extending into the typical population, and typical adults' performance on behavioural tasks that are impaired in ASD is correlated with the extent to which they display autistic traits (as measured by Autism Spectrum Quotient, AQ). Individuals with ASD also show structural and functional differences in brain regions involved in social perception. Here we show that variation in AQ in typically developing individuals is associated with altered brain activity in the neural circuit for social attention perception while viewing others' eye gaze. In an fMRI experiment, participants viewed faces looking at variable or constant directions. In control conditions, only the eye region was presented or the heads were shown with eyes closed but oriented at variable or constant directions. The response to faces with variable vs. constant eye gaze direction was associated with AQ scores in a number of regions (posterior superior temporal sulcus, intraparietal sulcus, temporoparietal junction, amygdala, and MT/V5) of the brain network for social attention perception. No such effect was observed for heads with eyes closed or when only the eyes were presented. The results demonstrate a relationship between neurophysiology and autism spectrum traits in the typical (non-ASD) population and suggest that changes in the functioning of the neural circuit for social attention perception is associated with an extended autism spectrum in the typical population.
► Autistic spectrum might extend to typically developing (TD) individuals. ► We studied TD individuals with varying Autism Spectrum Quotient (AQ). ► AQ correlated with BOLD response to viewing variable vs. constant eye gaze. ► AQ did not correlate with response to directional control stimuli. ► Neurophysiology and autism spectrum traits are associated in non-AS individuals.
Eye gaze; fMRI; Autism spectrum; Attention; Face perception
The impact of emotions on gaze-oriented attention was investigated in non-anxious participants. A neutral face cue with straight gaze was presented, which then averted its gaze to the side while remaining neutral or expressing an emotion (fear/surprise in Exp.1 and anger/happiness in Exp.2). Localization of a subsequent target was faster at the gazed-at location (congruent condition) than at the non-gazed-at location (incongruent condition). This Gaze-Orienting Effect (GOE) was enhanced for fear, surprise, and anger, compared to neutral expressions which did not differ from happy expressions. In addition, Event Related Potentials (ERPs) to the target showed a congruency effect on P1 for fear and surprise and a left lateralized congruency effect on P1 for happy faces, suggesting that target visual processing was also influenced by attention to gaze and emotions. Finally, at cue presentation, early postero-lateral (Early Directing Attention Negativity (EDAN)) and later antero-lateral (Anterior Directing Attention Negativity (ADAN)) attention-related ERP components were observed, reflecting, respectively, the shift of attention and its holding at gazed-at locations. These two components were not modulated by emotions. Together, these findings show that the processing of social signals such as gaze and facial expression interact rather late and in a complex manner to modulate spatial attention.
PMID: 24047232 CAMSID: cams3897
Gaze orienting; Attention; ERPs; Emotions
Understanding a speaker’s communicative intent in everyday interactions is likely to draw on cues such as facial expression and tone of voice. Prior research has shown that individuals with autism spectrum disorders (ASD) show reduced activity in brain regions that respond selectively to the face and voice. However, there is also evidence that activity in key regions can be increased if task demands allow for explicit processing of emotion.
To examine the neural circuitry underlying impairments in interpreting communicative intentions in ASD using irony comprehension as a test case, and to determine whether explicit instructions to attend to facial expression and tone of voice will elicit more normative patterns of brain activity.
Design, Setting, and Participants
Eighteen boys with ASD (aged 7–17 years, full-scale IQ >70) and 18 typically developing (TD) boys underwent functional magnetic resonance imaging at the Ahmanson-Lovelace Brain Mapping Center, University of California, Los Angeles.
Main Outcome Measures
Blood oxygenation level– dependent brain activity during the presentation of short scenarios involving irony. Behavioral performance (accuracy and response time) was also recorded.
Reduced activity in the medial prefrontal cortex and right superior temporal gyrus was observed in children with ASD relative to TD children during the perception of potentially ironic vs control scenarios. Importantly, a significant group X condition interaction in the medial prefrontal cortex showed that activity was modulated by explicit instructions to attend to facial expression and tone of voice only in the ASD group. Finally, medial prefrontal cortex activity was inversely related to symptom severity in children with ASD such that children with greater social impairment showed less activity in this region.
Explicit instructions to attend to facial expression and tone of voice can elicit increased activity in the medial prefrontal cortex, part of a network important for understanding the intentions of others, in children with ASD. These findings suggest a strategy for future intervention research.
Prior studies have indicated brain abnormalities underlying social processing in autism, but no fMRI study has specifically addressed the differential processing of direct and averted gaze, a critical social cue. Fifteen adolescents and adults with autism and 14 typically developing comparison participants viewed dynamic virtual-reality videos depicting a simple but realistic social scenario, in which an approaching male figure maintained either direct or averted gaze. Significant group by condition interactions reflecting differential responses to direct versus averted gaze in people with autism relative to typically developing individuals were identified in the right temporoparietal junction, right anterior insula, left lateral occipital cortex, and left dorsolateral prefrontal cortex. Our results provide initial evidence regarding brain mechanisms underlying the processing of gaze direction during simple social encounters, providing new insight into the social deficits in individuals with autism.
Autism; direct gaze; averted gaze; gaze processing; functional magnetic resonance imaging
Individuals with autism spectrum disorders (ASD) have documented deficits in face processing, face memory and abnormal activation of the neural circuitry that supports these functions. To examine speed of processing of faces in ASD, high density event-related brain potentials were recorded to images of faces, inverted faces and non-face objects from 32 high-functioning adults with ASD and controls. Participants were instructed to focus on a cross hair prior to stimulus onset; the cross-hair location directed the participant's eye gaze to the eye region at stimulus onset. Although the ASD group preformed more poorly on behavioral tests of face and object memory, both groups demonstrated similar ERP responses, characterized by greater (positive) P1 and (negative) N170 amplitude to faces vs houses. N170 speed of processing to faces did not differ between groups. However, only the control group demonstrated differential responses to upright vs inverted faces. For the ASD group, the differential response to inverted vs upright faces was associated with better performance on face memory and self-reported social skills. It is possible that the use of attention cues may facilitate face processing in high-functioning adults with ASD, suggesting that the underlying neural circuitry can be activated in adults with ASD under specific demands.
event-related potential; P100; N170; autism; face processing