Autism Spectrum Disorder: Processing Facial Expressions Difficult For Patients

First Posted: Dec 04, 2015 08:33 PM EST

Individuals with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) may have difficulties processing the emotions that certain facial expressions convey.

Now, a new study by researchers at Children's Hospital Los Angeles and Columbia University found differing neural activity in the brain when examining functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) of patients with autism versus those without. Difficulties comprehending facial expressions can make it hard for an individual with ASD to successfully navigate social situations and emphasize with others.

"Studying these similarities and differences may help us understand the origins of interpersonal emotional experience in people with ASD, and provide targets for intervention," said principal investigator Bradley S. Peterson, MD, director of the Institute for the Developing Mind at Children's Hospital Los Angeles, in a news release.

It's generally accepted that patients with autism have an atypical understanding in processing human faces and emotional expressions. However, it's not entirely agreed upon what underlying brain and behavioral mechanisms are responsible for these differences, researchers say.

During the study, researchers enrolled 51 individuals with ASD and 84 typically developing (TD) individuals. Each participant was shown a range of facial emotions in order to assess two aspects of emotion: valence and arousal.

Responses were separately correlated with neural activity in order to identify systems related to the two emotions. Researchers found that valence was remarkably similar between the two groups while arousal was significantly different.

There was much more neural activity in participants with ASD when they viewed arousing facial emotions, like happiness or fear. The TD individuals, on the other hand, more strongly activated attentional systems when viewing less arousing and more impassive expressions.

"Human beings imbue all experiences with emotional tone. It's possible, though highly unlikely, that the arousal system is wired differently in individuals with ASD," says Peterson. "More likely, the contrast in activation of their arousal system is determined by differences in how they are experiencing facial expressions. Their brain activity suggests that those with ASD are much more strongly affected by more arousing facial expressions than are their typically developing counterparts."

The study is published in the journal Human Brain Mapping

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