International Meeting for Autism Research: Neural Correlates of the Interaction of Gaze Direction and Facial Expression in Individuals with Autism

Neural Correlates of the Interaction of Gaze Direction and Facial Expression in Individuals with Autism

Thursday, May 20, 2010: 2:45 PM
Grand Ballroom E Level 5 (Philadelphia Marriott Downtown)
1:30 PM
E. J. Carter , Robotics Institute and Department of Psychology, Carnegie Mellon University, Pittsburgh, PA
D. L. Williams , Department of Speech Language Pathology, Duquesne University, Pittsburgh, PA
N. J. Minshew , Psychiatry and Neurology--Center for Excellence in Autism Research, University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine, Pittsburgh, PA
K. A. Pelphrey , Child Study Center, Yale University, New Haven, CT
Background: Gaze direction is a key component of understanding the import of others' emotions. For example, if a companion is making a fearful facial expression, the viewer must determine where he or she is looking in order to select a course of action. If the companion is looking away from the viewer, the viewer may be in danger. However, that is not the case if the companion is looking at the viewer. Individuals with autism have difficulty both with understanding gaze direction (e.g., Baron-Cohen, 1995, Mindblindness) and with identifying emotional facial expressions (e.g., Celani et al., JADD). It has previously been suggested that these individuals have dysfunction in the right posterior superior temporal sulcus (pSTS) wherein they do not differentiate between looking towards or away from a goal (Pelphrey et al., 2005, Brain).

Objectives: In this fMRI study, participants viewed a woman making a fearful expression towards or away from the viewer. We examined whether individuals with autism displayed a brain response that differentiated the two conditions (whether the observed woman shows fear toward the viewer or fear to something in the environment) and whether or not this pattern is the same as that of TD controls. The purpose of this study was to further examine the function of the right pSTS and other social brain areas in autism.

Methods: Participants were twelve individuals with autism (age: 11-21 years, mean = 16; FSIQ: 94-128, mean = 111) and twelve matched typically developing individuals (age: 12-23, mean = 19; FSIQ: 98-124, mean = 115). They passively viewed a video of an animated woman who periodically turned either towards or away from them while making a fearful facial expression. Images were collected using a 3T Siemens Allegra magnetic resonance imaging scanner and analyzed with Brain Voyager.

Results: Both groups showed a greater hemodynamic response when viewing the woman directing her expression away from them than towards them in the bilateral pSTS (q < .05). The typically developing group showed greater responses in many social brain areas to both conditions than did the group with autism, including the bilateral STS and right fusiform gyrus (q < .05).

Conclusions: Despite having a lower level of activity in some social brain areas relative to the typically developing individuals, the participants with autism still showed pSTS differentiation between a woman making a fearful facial expression towards and away from them. This suggests that individuals with autism are sensitive to differences in gaze information during emotion assessment.

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