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
Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD) are characterized by atypical patterns of behaviors and impairments in social communication. Among the fundamental social impairments in the ASD population are challenges in appropriately recognizing and responding to facial expressions. Traditional intervention approaches often require intensive support and well-trained therapists to address core deficits, with many with ASD having tremendous difficulty accessing such care due to lack of available trained therapists as well as intervention costs. As a result, emerging technology such as virtual reality (VR) has the potential to offer useful technology-enabled intervention systems. In this paper, an innovative VR-based facial emotional expression presentation system was developed that allows monitoring of eye gaze and physiological signals related to emotion identification to explore new efficient therapeutic paradigms. A usability study of this new system involving ten adolescents with ASD and ten typically developing adolescents as a control group was performed. The eye tracking and physiological data were analyzed to determine intragroup and intergroup variations of gaze and physiological patterns. Performance data, eye tracking indices and physiological features indicated that there were differences in the way adolescents with ASD process and recognize emotional faces compared to their typically developing peers. These results will be used in the future for an online adaptive VR-based multimodal social interaction system to improve emotion recognition abilities of individuals with ASD.
3D Interaction; multimodal interaction; psychology; usability; vr-based response systems
Three experiments explored attention to eye gaze, which is incompletely understood in typical development and is hypothesized to be disrupted in autism. Experiment 1 (n=26 typical adults) involved covert orienting to box, arrow, and gaze cues at two probabilities and cue-target times to test whether reorienting for gaze is endogenous, exogenous, or unique; experiment 2 (total n=80: male and female children and adults) studied age and sex effects on gaze cueing. Gaze cueing appears endogenous and may strengthen in typical development. Experiment 3 tested exogenous, endogenous, and/or gaze-based orienting in 25 typical and 27 Autistic Spectrum Disorder (ASD) children. ASD children made more saccades, slowing their reaction times; however, exogenous and endogenous orienting, including gaze cueing, appear intact in ASD.
gaze; box; arrow; vision; oculomotor; child
Previous evidence suggests that directional social cues (e.g., eye gaze) cause automatic shifts in attention toward gaze direction. It has been proposed that automatic attentional orienting driven by social cues (social orienting) involves a different neural network from automatic orienting driven by nonsocial cues. However, previous neuroimaging studies on social orienting have only compared gaze cues to symbolic cues, which typically engage top-down mechanisms. Therefore, we directly compared the neural activity involved in social orienting to that involved in purely automatic nonsocial orienting. Twenty participants performed a spatial cueing task consisting of social (gaze) cues and automatic nonsocial (peripheral squares) cues presented at short and long stimulus (cue-to-target) onset asynchronies (SOA), while undergoing fMRI. Behaviorally, a facilitation effect was found for both cue types at the short SOA, while an inhibitory effect (inhibition of return: IOR) was found only for nonsocial cues at the long SOA. Imaging results demonstrated that social and nonsocial cues recruited a largely overlapping fronto-parietal network. In addition, social cueing evoked greater activity in occipito-temporal regions at both SOAs, while nonsocial cueing recruited greater subcortical activity, but only for the long SOA (when IOR was found). A control experiment, including central arrow cues, confirmed that the occipito-temporal activity was at least in part due to the social nature of the cue and not simply to the location of presentation (central vs. peripheral). These results suggest an evolutionary trajectory for automatic orienting, from predominantly subcortical mechanisms for nonsocial orienting to predominantly cortical mechanisms for social orienting.
This study used eye-tracking to examine visual attention to faces and objects in adolescents with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and typical peers. Point of gaze was recorded during passive viewing of images of human faces, inverted human faces, monkey faces, three-dimensional curvilinear objects, and two-dimensional geometric patterns. Individuals with ASD obtained lower scores on measures of face recognition and social-emotional functioning but exhibited similar patterns of visual attention. In individuals with ASD, face recognition performance was associated with social adaptive function. Results highlight heterogeneity in manifestation of social deficits in ASD and suggest that naturalistic assessments are important for quantifying atypicalities in visual attention.
Autism Spectrum Disorder; Asperger Syndrome; face perception; visual attention; eye-tracking; face recognition
The present study aimed to explore the neural correlates of two characteristic deficits in autism spectrum disorders (ASD); social impairment and restricted, repetitive behavior patterns. To this end, we used comparable experiences of social exclusion and rule violation to probe potentially atypical neural networks in ASD. In children and adolescents with and without ASD, we used the interactive ball-toss game (Cyberball) to elicit social exclusion and a comparable game (Cybershape) to elicit a non-exclusive rule violation. Using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), we identified group differences in brain responses to social exclusion and rule violation. Though both groups reported equal distress following exclusion, the right insula and ventral anterior cingulate cortex were hypoactive during exclusion in children with ASD. In rule violation, right insula and dorsal prefrontal cortex were hyperactive in ASD. Right insula showed a dissociation in activation; it was hypoactive to social exclusion and hyperactive to rule violation in the ASD group. Further probed, different regions of right insula were modulated in each game, highlighting differences in regional specificity for which subsequent analyses revealed differences in patterns of functional connectivity. These results demonstrate neurobiological differences in processing social exclusion and rule violation in children with ASD.
Social Exclusion; Rule Violation; Autism Spectrum Disorder; Right Insula; Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging
Abnormal eye contact is a core symptom of autism spectrum disorders (ASD), though little is understood of the neural bases of gaze processing in ASD. Competing hypotheses suggest that individuals with ASD avoid eye contact due to the anxiety-provoking nature of direct eye gaze or that eye-gaze cues hold less interest or significance to children with ASD. The current study examined the effects of gaze direction on neural processing of emotional faces in typically developing (TD) children and those with ASD. While undergoing functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), 16 high-functioning children and adolescents with ASD and 16 TD controls viewed a series of faces depicting emotional expressions with either direct or averted gaze. Children in both groups showed significant activity in visual-processing regions for both direct and averted gaze trials. However, there was a significant group by gaze interaction such that only TD children showed reliably greater activity in ventrolateral prefrontal cortex for direct versus averted gaze. The ASD group showed no difference between direct and averted gaze in response to faces conveying negative emotions. These results highlight the key role of eye gaze in signaling communicative intent and suggest altered processing of the emotional significance of direct gaze in children with ASD.
Autism; facial expression; functional magnetic resonance imaging; gaze; developmental neuroimaging
Individuals diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) exhibit lifelong abnormalities in the adaptive allocation of visual attention. The ubiquitous nature of attentional impairments in ASD has led some authors to hypothesize that atypical attentional modulation may be a factor in the development of higher-level sociocommunicative deficits.
Participants were 20 children with ASD and 20 age- and Nonverbal IQ-matched typically developing (TD) children. We used the Attention Network Test (ANT) to investigate the efficiency and independence of three discrete attentional networks: alerting, orienting, and executive control. Additionally, we sought to investigate the relationship between each attentional network and measures of sociocommunicative symptom severity in children with ASD.
Results indicate that the orienting, but not alerting or executive control, networks may be impaired in children with ASD. In contrast to TD children, correlational analyses suggest that the alerting and executive control networks may not function as independently in children with ASD. Additionally, an association was found between the alerting network and social impairment and between the executive control network and IQ in children with ASD.
The results provide further evidence of an impairment in the visuospatial orienting network in ASD and suggest that there may be greater interdependence of alerting and executive control networks in ASD. Furthermore, decreased ability to efficiently modulate levels of alertness was related to increased sociocommunicative deficits, suggesting that domain-general attentional function may be associated with ASD symptomatology.
Autism; reaction time; visual attention; alerting; orienting; executive control
Autism spectrum disorders are characterized by cognitive control deficits as well as impairments in social interactions. However, the brain mechanisms mediating the interactive effects of these deficits have not been addressed. We employed event-related functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to examine the effects of processing directional information from faces on activity within brain regions mediating cognitive control. High-functioning individuals with autism and age-, gender-, and IQ-matched neurotypical individuals attended to the direction of a centrally-presented arrow or gaze stimulus with similar flanker stimuli oriented in the same (“congruent”) or opposite (“incongruent”) direction. The incongruent arrow condition was examined to assess functioning of brain regions mediating cognitive control in a context without social-cognitive demands, whereas the incongruent gaze condition assessed functioning of the same brain regions in a social-cognitive context. Consistent with prior studies, the incongruent arrow condition recruited activity in bilateral midfrontal gyrus, right inferior frontal gyrus, bilateral intraparietal sulcus, and the anterior cingulate relative to the congruent arrow condition in neurotypical participants. Notably, there were not diagnostic group differences in patterns of regional fMRI activation in response to the arrow condition. However, while viewing the incongruent gaze stimuli, although neurotypical participants recruited the same brain regions, participants with autism showed marked hypoactivation in these areas. These findings suggest that processing social-cognitive stimuli interferes with functioning of brain regions recruited during cognitive control tasks in autism. Implications for research into cognitive control deficits in autism are discussed.
Autism; Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI); Cognitive Control; Executive Function; Attention; Social Cognition; Gaze
Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASDs) are characterized by core deficits in social functions. Two theories have been suggested to explain these deficits: mind-blindness theory posits impaired mentalizing processes (i.e. decreased ability for establishing a representation of others' state of mind), while social motivation theory proposes that diminished reward value for social information leads to reduced social attention, social interactions, and social learning. Mentalizing and motivation are integral to typical social interactions, and neuroimaging evidence points to independent brain networks that support these processes in healthy individuals. However, the simultaneous function of these networks has not been explored in individuals with ASDs. We used a social, interactive fMRI task, the Domino game, to explore mentalizing- and motivation-related brain activation during a well-defined interval where participants respond to rewards or punishments (i.e. motivation) and concurrently process information about their opponent's potential next actions (i.e. mentalizing). Thirteen individuals with high-functioning ASDs, ages 12–24, and 14 healthy controls played fMRI Domino games against a computer-opponent and separately, what they were led to believe was a human-opponent. Results showed that while individuals with ASDs understood the game rules and played similarly to controls, they showed diminished neural activity during the human-opponent runs only (i.e. in a social context) in bilateral middle temporal gyrus (MTG) during mentalizing and right Nucleus Accumbens (NAcc) during reward-related motivation (Pcluster < 0.05 FWE). Importantly, deficits were not observed in these areas when playing against a computer-opponent or in areas related to motor and visual processes. These results demonstrate that while MTG and NAcc, which are critical structures in the mentalizing and motivation networks, respectively, activate normally in a non-social context, they fail to respond in an otherwise identical social context in ASD compared to controls. We discuss implications to both the mind-blindness and social motivation theories of ASD and the importance of social context in research and treatment protocols.
•We used an fMRI Domino game to map social networks in high-functioning ASDs.•ASDs did not show MTG increased activation during mentalizing in social context.•ASDs did not show NAcc increased activation for processing reward in social context.•Activation deficits were specific to brain areas involved in social processes.•Results support both the mind-blindness and the social motivation theories of ASDs.
Theory of mind; Reward; Nucleus accumbens; Middle temporal gyrus
Individuals with autism spectrum disorders (ASDs) have significant visuomotor processing deficits, atypical motoric behavior, and often substantial problems connecting socially. We suggest that the perceptual, attentional, and adaptive timing deficiencies associated with autism might directly impact the ability to become a socially connected unit with others. Using a rocking chair paradigm previously employed with typical adults, we demonstrate that typically-developing (TD) children exhibit spontaneous social rocking with their caregivers. In contrast, children diagnosed with ASD do not demonstrate a tendency to rock in a symmetrical state with their parents. We argue that the movement of our bodies is one of the fundamental ways by which we connect with our environment and, especially, ground ourselves in social environments. Deficiencies in perceiving and responding to the rhythms of the world may have serious consequences for the ability to become adequately embedded in a social context.
ASD; movement coupling; rocking synchrony; synchrony; rocking chair
Although circumscribed interests are a hallmark characteristic of autism spectrum disorders, providing a means for quantifying their functional impairment has proven difficult. We developed a passive viewing task to measure aspects of visual attention in children with autism spectrum disorders and typically developing controls. Task stimuli included picture arrays that were matched for social and nonsocial content. Nonsocial content was balanced to include items related to circumscribed interests (e.g., trains) as well as more commonplace items (e.g., furniture). Discrete aspects of gaze behavior were quantified using eye-tracking technology. Results indicate that visual attention in the autism group was more circumscribed (as indicated by the exploration of fewer images), more perseverative (as indicated by longer fixation times per image explored), and more detail oriented (as indicated by a greater number of discrete fixations on explored images). This pattern of results was similar for both social and object arrays. Within the autism group, overall severity of repetitive behavior symptoms correlated positively with exploration of object pictures and negatively with perseveration on social pictures. Results suggest that children with autism have a domain-general pattern of atypical visual attention that may represent an exaggeration of a typical attentional process and is related to a tendency to perseverate on images of interest and explore them in a more detail-oriented manner. Discrete measures of visual attention may therefore provide a reasonable means of quantifying aspects of the repetitive behavior phenotype in autism.
autism; repetitive behavior; circumscribed interests; visual exploration; attention
Atypical face processing plays a key role in social interaction difficulties encountered by individuals with autism. In the current fMRI study, the Thatcher illusion was used to investigate several aspects of face processing in 20 young adults with high-functioning autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and 20 matched neurotypical controls. “Thatcherized” stimuli were modified at either the eyes or the mouth and participants discriminated between pairs of faces while cued to attend to either of these features in upright and inverted orientation. Behavioral data confirmed sensitivity to the illusion and intact configural processing in ASD. Directing attention towards the eyes vs. the mouth in upright faces in ASD led to (1) improved discrimination accuracy; (2) increased activation in areas involved in social and emotional processing; (3) increased activation in subcortical face-processing areas. Our findings show that when explicitly cued to attend to the eyes, activation of cortical areas involved in face processing, including its social and emotional aspects, can be enhanced in autism. This suggests that impairments in face processing in autism may be caused by a deficit in social attention, and that giving specific cues to attend to the eye-region when performing behavioral therapies aimed at improving social skills may result in a better outcome.
Despite significant social difficulties, children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) are vulnerable to the effects of social exclusion. We recorded EEG while children with ASD and typical peers played a computerized game involving peer rejection. Children with ASD reported ostracism-related distress comparable to typically developing children. Event-related potentials (ERPs) indicated a distinct pattern of temporal processing of rejection events in children with ASD. While typically developing children showed enhanced response to rejection at a late slow wave indexing emotional arousal and regulation, those with autism showed attenuation at an early component, suggesting reduced engagement of attentional resources in the aversive social context. Results emphasize the importance of studying the time course of social information processing in ASD; they suggest distinct mechanisms subserving similar overt behavior and yield insights relevant to development and implementation of targeted treatment approaches and objective measures of response to treatment.
ERP; EEG; autism spectrum disorder; social exclusion; social neuroscience
The autism spectrum disorders (ASDs) arise from a diverse array of genetic and environmental origins that disrupt the typical developmental trajectory of neural connectivity and synaptogenesis. ASDs are marked by dysfunctional social behavior and cognition, among other deficits. Greater understanding of the biological substrates of typical social behavior in animal models will further our understanding of the etiology of ASDs. Despite the precision and tractability of molecular genetics models of ASDs in rodents, these organisms lack the complexity of human social behavior, thus limiting their impact on understanding ASDs to basic mechanisms. Non-human primates (NHPs) provide an attractive, complementary model for ASDs, due in part to the complexity and dynamics of social structures, reliance on vision for social signaling, and deep homology in brain circuitry mediating social behavior and reward. This knowledge is based on a rich literature, compiled over 50 years of observing primate behavior in the wild, which, in the case of rhesus macaques, is complemented by a large body of research characterizing neuronal activity during cognitive behavior. Several recent developments in this field are directly relevant to ASDs, including how the brain represents the perceptual features of social stimuli, how social information influences attention processes in the brain, and how the value of social interaction is computed. Because the symptoms of ASDs may represent extreme manifestations of traits that vary in intensity within the general population, we will additionally discuss ways in which nonhuman primates also show variation in social behavior and reward sensitivity. In cases where variation in species-typical behavior is analogous to similar variations in human behavior, we believe that study of the neural circuitry underlying this variation will provide important insights into the systems-level mechanisms contributing to ASD pathology.
Autism; Asperger’s; Non-human primate; Monkey
Children with Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASDs) are impaired in visually disengaging attention in both social and non-social contexts, impairments that may, in subtler form, also affect the infant siblings of children with an ASD (ASD-sibs). We investigated patterns of visual attention (gazing) in six-month-old ASD-sibs (n = 17) and the siblings of typically developing children (COMP-sibs; n =17) during the Face-to-Face/Still-Face Protocol (FFSF), in which parents are sequentially responsive, nonresponsive, and responsive to their infants. Throughout the protocol, ASD-sibs shifted their gaze to and from their parents' faces less frequently than did COMP-sibs. The mean durations of ASD-sibs’ gazes away from their parents' faces were longer than those of COMP-sibs. ASD-sibs and COMP-sibs did not differ in the mean durations of gazes at their parents' faces. In sum, ASD-sibs showed no deficits in visual interest to their parents’ faces, but greater interest than COMP-sibs in non-face stimuli.
autism spectrum disorders; siblings; at-risk; disengagement; early deficits
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.
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.
This study examines the processing of prosodic cues to linguistic structure and to affect, drawing on fMRI and behavioral data from 16 high-functioning adolescents with autism spectrum disorders (ASD) and 11 typically-developing controls. Stimuli were carefully matched on pitch, intensity, and duration, while varying systematically in conditions of affective prosody (angry versus neutral speech) and grammatical prosody (questions versus statement). To avoid conscious attention to prosody, which normalizes responses in young people with ASD, the implicit comprehension task directed attention to semantic aspects of the stimuli. Results showed that when perceiving prosodic cues, both affective and grammatical, activation of neural regions was more generalized in ASD than in typical development, and areas recruited reflect heightened reliance on cognitive control, reading of intentions, attentional management, and visualization. This broader recruitment of executive and “mind-reading” brain areas for a relative simple language processing task may be interpreted to suggest that speakers with HFA have developed less automaticity in language processing, and may also suggest that “mind-reading” or theory of mind deficits are intricately bound up in language processing. Data provide support for both a right-lateralized as well as a bilateral model of prosodic processing in typical individuals, depending upon the function of the prosodic information.
One hypothesis for the social deficits that characterize autism spectrum disorders (ASD) is diminished neural reward response to social interaction and attachment. Prior research using established monetary reward paradigms as a test of non-social reward to compare with social reward may involve confounds in the ability of individuals with ASD to utilize symbolic representation of money and the abstraction required to interpret monetary gains. Thus, a useful addition to our understanding of neural reward circuitry in ASD includes a characterization of the neural response to primary rewards.
We asked 17 children with ASD and 18 children without ASD to abstain from eating for at least four hours before an MRI scan in which they viewed images of high-calorie foods. We assessed the neural reward network for increases in the blood oxygenation level dependent (BOLD) signal in response to the food images
We found very similar patterns of increased BOLD signal to these images in the two groups; both groups showed increased BOLD signal in the bilateral amygdala, as well as in the nucleus accumbens, orbitofrontal cortex, and insula. Direct group comparisons revealed that the ASD group showed a stronger response to food cues in bilateral insula along the anterior-posterior gradient and in the anterior cingulate cortex than the control group, whereas there were no neural reward regions that showed higher activation for controls than for ASD.
These results suggest that neural response to primary rewards is not diminished but in fact shows an aberrant enhancement in children with ASD.
Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is a group of developmental disabilities characterized by impairments in social interaction and communication and restricted and repetitive interests/behaviors. Advances in human genomics have identified a large number of genetic variations associated with ASD. These associations are being rapidly verified by a growing number of studies using a variety of approaches, including mouse genetics. These studies have also identified key mechanisms underlying the pathogenesis of ASD, many of which involve synaptic dysfunctions, and have investigated novel, mechanism-based therapeutic strategies. This review will try to integrate these three key aspects of ASD research: human genetics, animal models, and potential treatments. Continued efforts in this direction should ultimately reveal core mechanisms that account for a larger fraction of ASD cases and identify neural mechanisms associated with specific ASD symptoms, providing important clues to efficient ASD treatment.
autism spectrum disorder; therapeutics; genetics; animal model; synapse; synaptopathy
Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is a neurodevelopmental disorder characterized by language and communication impairments, social impairments, and repetitive behaviors or restricted interests. Previous studies of semantic functions have found differences in semantic processing and differences in the activation of the language network in adults with ASD compared to controls. The goal of this study is to examine semantic functions in adolescents with ASD compared to typically developing adolescents. We utilized fMRI with a reading version of a response-naming task to investigate activation in 12 right-handed adolescent boys with ASD and 12 typically developing boys. Both groups performed the task at ceiling levels. Boys with ASD had significantly stronger activation than controls in Broca's area, which was less left lateralized in ASD individuals. Controls had a significant correlation between frontal and temporal language area activation in the left hemisphere, whereas ASD adolescents did not. Direct group comparisons revealed additional regions activated in the ASD group relative to the control group. These results suggest differences in semantic organization, approaches to the semantic task, or efficiency in semantic processing in ASD adolescents relative to typically developing adolescents.
Autistic disorder; Functional MRI; Broca's area; Wernicke's area; Semantics; Asymmetry
Autism spectrum disorders (ASD) are associated with severe impairments in social functioning. Because faces provide nonverbal cues that support social interactions, many studies of ASD have examined neural structures that process faces, including the amygdala, ventromedial prefrontal cortex and superior and middle temporal gyri. However, increases or decreases in activation are often contingent on the cognitive task. Specifically, the cognitive domain of attention influences group differences in brain activation. We investigated brain function abnormalities in participants with ASD using a task that monitored attention bias to emotional faces.
Twenty-four participants (12 with ASD, 12 controls) completed a functional magnetic resonance imaging study while performing an attention cuing task with emotional (happy, sad, angry) and neutral faces.
In response to emotional faces, those in the ASD group showed greater right amygdala activation than those in the control group. A preliminary psychophysiological connectivity analysis showed that ASD participants had stronger positive right amygdala and ventromedial prefrontal cortex coupling and weaker positive right amygdala and temporal lobe coupling than controls. There were no group differences in the behavioural measure of attention bias to the emotional faces.
The small sample size may have affected our ability to detect additional group differences.
When attention bias to emotional faces was equivalent between ASD and control groups, ASD was associated with greater amygdala activation. Preliminary analyses showed that ASD participants had stronger connectivity between the amygdala ventromedial prefrontal cortex (a network implicated in emotional modulation) and weaker connectivity between the amygdala and temporal lobe (a pathway involved in the identification of facial expressions, although areas of group differences were generally in a more anterior region of the temporal lobe than what is typically reported for emotional face processing). These alterations in connectivity are consistent with emotion and face processing disturbances in ASD.
Because previous studies of attention in autism spectrum disorders (ASD) have been restricted in age range examined, little is known about how these processes develop over the course of childhood. In this study we examined cross-sectional age effects on patterns of visual attention to social and nonsocial information in 43 typically developing children and 51 children with ASD ranging in age from 2 to 18. Results indicated a sharp increase in visual exploration with age and a decrease in perseverative and detail-focused attention for both groups of children. However, increased age was associated with greater increases in visual exploration for typically developing children than for those children with ASD. The developmental differences were most pronounced for attention to certain nonsocial stimuli as children with ASD demonstrated a disproportionate attentional bias for these stimuli from very early in life. Disproportionate visual attention to certain nonsocial objects relative to social stimuli in ASD spanned from early to late childhood, and thus may represent both an early and a persistent characteristic of the disorder.
autism; attention; visual exploration; development; eye tracking
Although many studies have reported face identity recognition deficits in autism spectrum disorders (ASD), two fundamental question remains: 1) Is this deficit “process specific” for face memory in particular, or does it extend to perceptual discrimination of faces as well? And 2) Is the deficit “domain specific” for faces, or is it found more generally for other social or even nonsocial stimuli? The answers to these questions are important both for understanding the nature of autism and its developmental etiology, and for understanding the functional architecture of face processing in the typical brain. Here we show that children with ASD are impaired (compared to age and IQ-matched typical children) in face memory, but not face perception, demonstrating process specificity. Further, we find no deficit for either memory or perception of places or cars, indicating domain specificity. Importantly, we further showed deficits in both the perception and memory of bodies, suggesting that the relevant domain of deficit may be social rather than specifically facial. These results provide a more precise characterization of the cognitive phenotype of autism and further indicate a functional dissociation between face memory and face perception.