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.