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1.  The neural correlates of social attention: automatic orienting to social and nonsocial cues 
Psychological Research  2009;73(4):499-511.
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.
PMCID: PMC2694932  PMID: 19350270
2.  Brain function and gaze-fixation during facial emotion processing in fragile-X and autism 
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to avoid looking others in the eye, along with difficulties in communication with others and tend to be socially withdrawn.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.
PMCID: PMC2679695  PMID: 19360673
fragile X syndrome; autism; face processing; brain function; fMRI
3.  Neural basis of irony comprehension in children with autism: the role of prosody and context 
Brain : a journal of neurology  2006;129(0 4):932-943.
While individuals with autism spectrum disorders (ASD) are typically impaired in interpreting the communicative intent of others, little is known about the neural bases of higher-level pragmatic impairments. Here, we used functional MRI (fMRI) to examine the neural circuitry underlying deficits in understanding irony in high-functioning children with ASD. Participants listened to short scenarios and decided whether the speaker was sincere or ironic. Three types of scenarios were used in which we varied the information available to guide this decision. Scenarios included (i) both knowledge of the event outcome and strong prosodic cues (sincere or sarcastic intonation), (ii) prosodic cues only or (iii) knowledge of the event outcome only. Although children with ASD performed well above chance, they were less accurate than typically developing (TD) children at interpreting the communicative intent behind a potentially ironic remark, particularly with regard to taking advantage of available contextual information. In contrast to prior research showing hypoactivation of regions involved in understanding the mental states of others, children with ASD showed significantly greater activity than TD children in the right inferior frontal gyrus (IFG) as well as in bilateral temporal regions. Increased activity in the ASD group fell within the network recruited in the TD group and may reflect more effortful processing needed to interpret the intended meaning of an utterance. These results confirm that children with ASD have difficulty interpreting the communicative intent of others and suggest that these individuals can recruit regions activated as part of the normative neural circuitry when task demands require explicit attention to socially relevant cues.
PMCID: PMC3713234  PMID: 16481375
autism; brain development; fMRI; language pragmatics; social cognition
4.  Social and Nonsocial Content Differentially Modulates Visual Attention and Autonomic Arousal in Rhesus Macaques 
PLoS ONE  2011;6(10):e26598.
The sophisticated analysis of gestures and vocalizations, including assessment of their emotional valence, helps group-living primates efficiently navigate their social environment. Deficits in social information processing and emotion regulation are important components of many human psychiatric illnesses, such as autism, schizophrenia and social anxiety disorder. Analyzing the neurobiology of social information processing and emotion regulation requires a multidisciplinary approach that benefits from comparative studies of humans and animal models. However, many questions remain regarding the relationship between visual attention and arousal while processing social stimuli. Using noninvasive infrared eye-tracking methods, we measured the visual social attention and physiological arousal (pupil diameter) of adult male rhesus monkeys (Macaca mulatta) as they watched social and nonsocial videos. We found that social videos, as compared to nonsocial videos, captured more visual attention, especially if the social signals depicted in the videos were directed towards the subject. Subject-directed social cues and nonsocial nature documentary footage, compared to videos showing conspecifics engaging in naturalistic social interactions, generated larger pupil diameters (indicating heightened sympathetic arousal). These findings indicate that rhesus monkeys will actively engage in watching videos of various kinds. Moreover, infrared eye tracking technology provides a mechanism for sensitively gauging the social interest of presented stimuli. Adult male rhesus monkeys' visual attention and physiological arousal do not always trend in the same direction, and are likely influenced by the content and novelty of a particular visual stimulus. This experiment creates a strong foundation for future experiments that will examine the neural network responsible for social information processing in nonhuman primates. Such studies may provide valuable information relevant to interpreting the neural deficits underlying human psychiatric illnesses such as autism, schizophrenia and social anxiety disorder.
PMCID: PMC3202553  PMID: 22046313
5.  The Development of Multisensory Integration in High-Functioning Autism: High-Density Electrical Mapping and Psychophysical Measures Reveal Impairments in the Processing of Audiovisual Inputs 
Cerebral Cortex (New York, NY)  2012;23(6):1329-1341.
Successful integration of auditory and visual inputs is crucial for both basic perceptual functions and for higher-order processes related to social cognition. Autism spectrum disorders (ASD) are characterized by impairments in social cognition and are associated with abnormalities in sensory and perceptual processes. Several groups have reported that individuals with ASD are impaired in their ability to integrate socially relevant audiovisual (AV) information, and it has been suggested that this contributes to the higher-order social and cognitive deficits observed in ASD. However, successful integration of auditory and visual inputs also influences detection and perception of nonsocial stimuli, and integration deficits may impair earlier stages of information processing, with cascading downstream effects. To assess the integrity of basic AV integration, we recorded high-density electrophysiology from a cohort of high-functioning children with ASD (7–16 years) while they performed a simple AV reaction time task. Children with ASD showed considerably less behavioral facilitation to multisensory inputs, deficits that were paralleled by less effective neural integration. Evidence for processing differences relative to typically developing children was seen as early as 100 ms poststimulation, and topographic analysis suggested that children with ASD relied on different cortical networks during this early multisensory processing stage.
PMCID: PMC3643715  PMID: 22628458
auditory; electrophysiology; ERPs; multimodal; visual
6.  Neural circuitry of emotional face processing in autism spectrum disorders 
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.
PMCID: PMC2834792  PMID: 20184808
7.  Mentalizing and motivation neural function during social interactions in autism spectrum disorders☆ 
NeuroImage : Clinical  2013;3:321-331.
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.
PMCID: PMC3815022  PMID: 24273716
Theory of mind; Reward; Nucleus accumbens; Middle temporal gyrus
8.  Response of neural reward regions to food cues in autism spectrum disorders 
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.
PMCID: PMC3436657  PMID: 22958533
9.  fMRI evidence of neural abnormalities in the subcortical face processing system in ASD 
NeuroImage  2010;54(1):697-704.
Recent evidence suggests that a rapid, automatic face-detection system is supported by subcortical structures including the amygdala, pulvinar, and superior colliculus. Early emerging abnormalities in these structures may be related to reduced social orienting in children with autism, and subsequently, to aberrant development of cortical circuits involved in face processing. Our objective was to determine whether functional abnormalities in the subcortical face processing system are present in adults with autism spectrum disorders (ASD) during supraliminal fearful face processing. Participants included twenty-eight individuals with ASD and 25 controls group-matched on age, IQ, and behavioral performance. The ASD group met diagnostic criteria on the ADI-R, ADOS-G, and DSM-IV. Both the ASD and control groups showed significant activation in bilateral fusiform gyri. The control group exhibited additional significant responses in the right amygdala, right pulvinar, and bilateral superior colliculi. In the direct group comparison, the controls showed significantly greater activation in the left amygdala, bilateral fusiform gyrus, right pulvinar, and bilateral superior colliculi. No brain region showed significantly greater activation in the ASD group compared to the controls. Thus, basic rapid face identification mechanisms appear to be functional in ASD. However, individuals with ASD failed to engage the subcortical brain regions involved in face detection and automatic emotional face processing, suggesting a core mechanism for impaired socioemotional processing in ASD. Neural abnormalities in this system may contribute to early emerging deficits in social orienting and attention, the putative precursors to abnormalities in social cognition and cortical face processing specialization.
PMCID: PMC3426450  PMID: 20656041
10.  White matter correlates of sensory processing in autism spectrum disorders 
NeuroImage : Clinical  2014;6:379-387.
Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) has been characterized by atypical socio-communicative behavior, sensorimotor impairment and abnormal neurodevelopmental trajectories. DTI has been used to determine the presence and nature of abnormality in white matter integrity that may contribute to the behavioral phenomena that characterize ASD. Although atypical patterns of sensory responding in ASD are well documented in the behavioral literature, much less is known about the neural networks associated with aberrant sensory processing. To address the roles of basic sensory, sensory association and early attentional processes in sensory responsiveness in ASD, our investigation focused on five white matter fiber tracts known to be involved in these various stages of sensory processing: superior corona radiata, centrum semiovale, inferior longitudinal fasciculus, posterior limb of the internal capsule, and splenium. We acquired high angular resolution diffusion images from 32 children with ASD and 26 typically developing children between the ages of 5 and 8. We also administered sensory assessments to examine brain-behavior relationships between white matter integrity and sensory variables. Our findings suggest a modulatory role of the inferior longitudinal fasciculus and splenium in atypical sensorimotor and early attention processes in ASD. Increased tactile defensiveness was found to be related to reduced fractional anisotropy in the inferior longitudinal fasciculus, which may reflect an aberrant connection between limbic structures in the temporal lobe and the inferior parietal cortex. Our findings also corroborate the modulatory role of the splenium in attentional orienting, but suggest the possibility of a more diffuse or separable network for social orienting in ASD. Future investigation should consider the use of whole brain analyses for a more robust assessment of white matter microstructure.
•First study of ASD to link observed sensory behaviors to white matter integrity•Findings suggest that aberrant limbic connectivity is related to tactile defensiveness.•Findings corroborate modulatory role of splenium in orienting.•Findings suggest a more diffuse or separable network for social orienting in ASD.
PMCID: PMC4218938  PMID: 25379451
11.  Autism spectrum disorder, but not amygdala lesions, impairs social attention in visual search 
Neuropsychologia  2014;63:259-274.
People with autism spectrum disorders (ASD) have pervasive impairments in social interactions, a diagnostic component that may have its roots in atypical social motivation and attention. One of the brain structures implicated in the social abnormalities seen in ASD is the amygdala. To further characterize the impairment of people with ASD in social attention, and to explore the possible role of the amygdala, we employed a series of visual search tasks with both social (faces and people with different postures, emotions, ages, and genders) and non-social stimuli (e.g., electronics, food, and utensils). We first conducted trial-wise analyses of fixation properties and elucidated visual search mechanisms. We found that an attentional mechanism of initial orientation could explain the detection advantage of non-social targets. We then zoomed into fixation-wise analyses. We defined target-relevant effects as the difference in the percentage of fixations that fell on target-congruent vs. target-incongruent items in the array. In Experiment 1, we tested 8 high-functioning adults with ASD, 3 adults with focal bilateral amygdala lesions, and 19 controls. Controls rapidly oriented to target-congruent items and showed a strong and sustained preference for fixating them. Strikingly, people with ASD oriented significantly less and more slowly to target-congruent items, an attentional deficit especially with social targets. By contrast, patients with amygdala lesions performed indistinguishably from controls. In Experiment 2, we recruited a different sample of 13 people with ASD and 8 healthy controls, and tested them on the same search arrays but with all array items equalized for low-level saliency. The results replicated those of Experiment 1. In Experiment 3, we recruited 13 people with ASD, 8 healthy controls, 3 amygdala lesion patients and another group of 11 controls and tested them on a simpler array. Here our group effect for ASD strongly diminished and all four subject groups showed similar target-relevant effects. These findings argue for an attentional deficit in ASD that is disproportionate for social stimuli, cannot be explained by low-level visual properties of the stimuli, and is more severe with high-load top-down task demands. Furthermore, this deficit appears to be independent of the amygdala, and not evident from general social bias independent of the target-directed search.
PMCID: PMC4317264  PMID: 25218953
Visual search; Autism; Amygdala; Saliency; Social
12.  ERP responses differentiate inverted but not upright face processing in adults with ASD 
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.
PMCID: PMC3375882  PMID: 19454620
event-related potential; P100; N170; autism; face processing
13.  Reading Affect in the Face and Voice 
Archives of general psychiatry  2007;64(6):698-708.
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.
PMCID: PMC3713233  PMID: 17548751
14.  Of mice and monkeys: using non-human primate models to bridge mouse- and human-based investigations of autism spectrum disorders 
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.
PMCID: PMC3445833  PMID: 22958282
Autism; Asperger’s; Non-human primate; Monkey
15.  Perception of Social Cues of Danger in Autism Spectrum Disorders 
PLoS ONE  2013;8(12):e81206.
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.
PMCID: PMC3852523  PMID: 24324679
16.  Atypical integration of social cues for orienting to gaze direction in adults with autism 
Molecular Autism  2015;6:5.
Gaze direction provides important information about social attention, and people tend to reflexively orient in the direction others are gazing. Perceiving the gaze of others relies on the integration of multiple social cues, which include perceptual information related to the eyes, gaze direction, head position, and body orientation of others. Autism spectrum conditions (ASC) are characterised by social and emotional deficits, including atypical gaze behaviour. The social-emotional deficits may emerge from a reliance on perceptual information involving details and features, at the expense of more holistic processing, which includes the integration of features. While people with ASC are often able to physically compute gaze direction and show intact reflexive orienting to others’ gaze, they show deficits in reading mental states from the eyes.
The present study recruited 23 adult males with a diagnosis of ASC and 23 adult males without ASC as a control group. They were tested using a spatial cuing paradigm involving head and body cues in a photograph of a person followed by a laterally presented target. The task manipulated the orientation of head with respect to body orientation to test subsequent shifts of attention in observers.
The results replicated previous findings showing facilitated shifts of attention by the healthy control participants toward laterally presented targets cued by a congruently rotated head combined with a front view of a body. In contrast, the ASC group showed facilitated orienting to targets when both the head and body were rotated towards the target.
The findings reveal atypical integration of social cues in ASC for orienting of attention. This is suggested to reflect abnormalities in cognitive and neural mechanisms specialized for processing of social cues for attention orienting in ASC.
PMCID: PMC4328362  PMID: 25685307
Gaze; Attention; Social orienting; Theory of mind; Asperger syndrome; Autism; Autism spectrum conditions
17.  Autism spectrum traits predict the neural response to eye gaze in typical individuals 
Neuroimage  2012;59(4-4):3356-3363.
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.
PMCID: PMC3315678  PMID: 22062191
Eye gaze; fMRI; Autism spectrum; Attention; Face perception
18.  Modulation of mu attenuation to social stimuli in children and adults with 16p11.2 deletions and duplications 
Copy number variations (CNV) within the recurrent ~600 kb chromosomal locus of 16p11.2 are associated with a wide range of neurodevelopmental disorders, including autism spectrum disorder (ASD). However, little is known about the social brain phenotype of 16p11.2 CNV and how this phenotype is related to the social impairments associated with CNVs at this locus. The aim of this preliminary study was to use molecular subtyping to establish the social brain phenotype of individuals with 16p11.2 CNV and how these patterns relate to typical development and ASD.
We evaluated the social brain phenotype as expressed by mu attenuation in 48 children and adults characterized as duplication carriers (n = 12), deletion carriers (n = 12), individuals with idiopathic ASD (n = 8), and neurotypical controls (n = 16). Participants watched videos containing social and nonsocial motion during electroencephalogram (EEG) acquisition.
Overall, only the typical group exhibited predicted patterns of mu modulation to social information (e.g., greater mu attenuation for social than nonsocial motion). Both 16p11.2 CNV groups exhibited more mu attenuation for nonsocial than social motion. The ASD group did not discriminate between conditions and demonstrated less mu attenuation compared to the typical and duplication carriers. Single-trial analysis indicated that mu attenuation decreased over time more rapidly for 16p11.2 CNV groups than the typical group. The duplication group did not diverge from typical patterns of mu attenuation until after initial exposure.
These results indicate atypical but unique patterns of mu attenuation for deletion and duplication carriers, highlighting the need to continue characterizing the social brain phenotype associated with 16p11.2 CNVs.
Electronic supplementary material
The online version of this article (doi:10.1186/s11689-015-9118-5) contains supplementary material, which is available to authorized users.
PMCID: PMC4514956  PMID: 26213586
16p11.2; Copy number variation (CNV); Autism spectrum disorder (ASD); Mu attenuation; Electroencephalogram (EEG); Social perception; Molecular subtyping
19.  It’s All in the Eyes: Subcortical and Cortical Activation during Grotesqueness Perception in Autism 
PLoS ONE  2013;8(1):e54313.
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.
PMCID: PMC3544832  PMID: 23342130
20.  DUF1220 Dosage Is Linearly Associated with Increasing Severity of the Three Primary Symptoms of Autism 
PLoS Genetics  2014;10(3):e1004241.
One of the three most frequently documented copy number variations associated with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is a 1q21.1 duplication that encompasses sequences encoding DUF1220 protein domains, the dosage of which we previously implicated in increased human brain size. Further, individuals with ASD frequently display accelerated brain growth and a larger brain size that is also associated with increased symptom severity. Given these findings, we investigated the relationship between DUF1220 copy number and ASD severity, and here show that in individuals with ASD (n = 170), the copy number (dosage) of DUF1220 subtype CON1 is highly variable, ranging from 56 to 88 copies following a Gaussian distribution. More remarkably, in individuals with ASD CON1 copy number is also linearly associated, in a dose-response manner, with increased severity of each of the three primary symptoms of ASD: social deficits (p = 0.021), communicative impairments (p = 0.030), and repetitive behaviors (p = 0.047). These data indicate that DUF1220 protein domain (CON1) dosage has an ASD-wide effect and, as such, is likely to be a key component of a major pathway underlying ASD severity. Finally, these findings, by implicating the dosage of a previously unexamined, copy number polymorphic and brain evolution-related gene coding sequence in ASD severity, provide an important new direction for further research into the genetic factors underlying ASD.
Author Summary
Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is a common behaviorally defined condition noted by impairments in social reciprocity and communicative abilities and exaggerated repetitive behaviors and stereotyped interests. Individuals with ASD frequently have a larger and more rapidly growing brain than their typically developing peers. Given the widely documented heritability suggesting that ASD is predominantly a genetic condition and the well-established link between ASD and abnormal brain growth patterns, genes involved in brain growth would be excellent candidates to study regarding ASD. One such candidate is DUF1220, a highly copy number polymorphic protein domain that we have previously linked to brain evolution and brain size. However, due to the extreme copy number variability of DUF1220, it has not been directly investigated in previous genome wide polymorphism studies searching for genes important in ASD. Here we show that, in individuals with ASD, 1) DUF1220 subtype CON1 is highly variable, ranging from 56 to 88 copies, and 2) the copy number of CON1 is associated, in a linear dose-response manner, with increased severity of each of the three primary symptoms of ASD: as CON1 copy number increases each of the three primary symptoms of ASD (impaired social reciprocity, impaired communicative ability and increased repetitive behaviors) become incrementally worse.
PMCID: PMC3961203  PMID: 24651471
21.  Research Review: Social motivation and oxytocin in autism – implications for joint attention development and intervention 
Background and Scope
The social motivation hypothesis (SMH) suggests that individuals with autism spectrum disorders (ASD) are less intrinsically rewarded by social stimuli than their neurotypical peers. This difference in social motivation has been posited as a factor contributing to social deficits in ASD. Social motivation is thought to involve the neuropeptide oxytocin. Here, we review the evidence for oxytocin effects in ASD, and discuss its potential role in one important social cognitive behavior.
Systematic searches were conducted using the PsychINFO and MEDLINE databases and the search terms “oxytocin”, and “autism”; the same databases were used for separate searches for “joint attention”, “intervention”, and “autism”, using the same inclusion criteria as an earlier 2011 review but updating it for the period 2010 to October 2012.
Several studies suggest that giving oxytocin to both individuals with ASD and typically developing individuals can enhance performance on social cognitive tasks. Studies that have attempted to intervene in joint attention in ASD suggest that social motivation may be a particular obstacle to lasting effects.
The review of the evidence for the SMH suggests a potential role for oxytocin in social motivation deficits in ASD. Because of its importance for later communicative and social development, the focus here is on implications of oxytocin and social motivation in the development of and interventions in joint attention. Joint attention is a central impairment in ASD, and as a result is the focus of several behavioral interventions. In describing this previous research on joint attention interventions in ASD, we pay particular attention to problems encountered in such studies, and propose ways that oxytocin may facilitate behavioral intervention in this area. For future research, integrating behavioral and pharmacological interventions (oxytocin administration) would be a worthwhile experimental direction to improve understanding of the role of oxytocin in ASD and help optimize outcomes for children with ASD.
PMCID: PMC3663901  PMID: 23451765
Autism spectrum disorders; behavioural interventions; social motivation hypothesis
22.  Eye-Tracking, Autonomic, and Electrophysiological Correlates of Emotional Face Processing in Adolescents with Autism Spectrum Disorder 
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.
PMCID: PMC3913826  PMID: 22684525
Autism spectrum disorder; Eye-tracking; Event-related potentials; Pupillometry; Emotional face processing
23.  Autism and Cognition Within Epilepsy: Social Matters 
Epilepsy Currents  2015;15(4):202-205.
The association of epilepsy, autism spectrum disorders (ASD), and intellectual disability (ID) is well recognized. There is a wide range of social-cognitive deficits that can be identified in epilepsy over the life-span, from ASD in infants with an epileptic encephalopathy, to social-cognitive impairments affecting social interaction and comprehension in those with normal nonsocial cognitive function. Identifying ASD and social-cognitive deficits is an important aspect of comprehensive epilepsy care. There are behavioral and educational interventions that exist to treat ASD and social-cognitive deficits. These behavioral, communication, and educational interventions, in conjunction with medications to treat the seizures, should be considered an integral part of the comprehensive management of epilepsy throughout the life-span. The following are the key points of this review: Autism spectrum disorders and social-cognitive deficits are associated with epilepsy throughout the life-span, and identification of these deficits is an important part of epilepsy care.Children with an epileptic encephalopathy such as infantile spasms are at high risk for developing ASD, and the social-cognitive deficits that precede ASD may be recognized in the first year of life.In epilepsy, the likelihood of developing autism spectrum disorders is highest in those with ID, but there is a wide spectrum of manifestations, from ASD in children with epilepsy and ID, to social-cognitive impairments affecting social interaction and comprehension in those with normal nonsocial cognitive function.Implementation of behavioral, communication, and educational interventions that exist to treat ASD and social-cognitive deficits, along with medications to treat the seizures, should be considered an important part of the comprehensive management of epilepsy throughout the life-span.
PMCID: PMC4532233  PMID: 26316868
24.  Age Trends in Visual Exploration of Social and Nonsocial Information in Children with Autism 
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.
PMCID: PMC3358817  PMID: 22639682
autism; attention; visual exploration; development; eye tracking
25.  Eyes on me: an fMRI study of the effects of social gaze on action control 
Previous evidence suggests that ‘social gaze’ can not only cause shifts in attention, but also can change the perception of objects located in the direction of gaze and how these objects will be manipulated by an observer. These findings implicate differences in the neural networks sub-serving action control driven by social cues as compared with nonsocial cues. Here, we sought to explore this hypothesis by using functional magnetic resonance imaging and a stimulus–response compatibility paradigm in which participants were asked to generate spatially congruent or incongruent motor responses to both social and nonsocial stimuli. Data analysis revealed recruitment of a dorsal frontoparietal network and the locus coeruleus for the generation of incongruent motor responses, areas previously implicated in controlling attention. As a correlate for the effect of ‘social gaze’ on action control, an interaction effect was observed for incongruent responses to social stimuli in sub-cortical structures, anterior cingulate and inferior frontal cortex. Our results, therefore, suggest that performing actions in a—albeit minimal—social context significantly changes the neural underpinnings of action control and recruits brain regions previously implicated in action monitoring, the reorienting of attention and social cognition.
PMCID: PMC3150858  PMID: 20705602
social gaze; action control; stimulus–response compatibility; fMRI

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