Processing facial emotions in persons with autism spectrum disorder

November 30, 2015, Children's Hospital Los Angeles
autism
Quinn, an autistic boy, and the line of toys he made before falling asleep. Repeatedly stacking or lining up objects is a behavior commonly associated with autism. Credit: Wikipedia.

Individuals with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) often have difficulty recognizing and interpreting how facial expressions convey various emotions - from joy to puzzlement, sadness to anger. This can make it difficult for an individual with ASD to successfully navigate social situations and empathize with others.

A study led by researchers at Children's Hospital Los Angeles and Columbia University used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to study the neural activity of different brain regions in participants with ASD, compared with typically developing (TD) participants, when viewing facial emotions.

The researchers found that while behavioral response to face-stimuli was comparable across groups, the corresponding neural activity between ASD and TD groups differed dramatically.

"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. The results have been published online in advance of publication by the journal Human Brain Mapping.

While there is a general consensus that individuals with ASD are atypical in the way they process human faces and emotional expressions, researchers have not agreed on the underlying brain and behavioral mechanisms that determine such differences.

In order to more objectively look at how participants in both groups responded to a broad range of emotional faces, the study used fMRI to measure two neurophysiological systems, called valence and arousal, that underlie all emotional experiences. "Valence" refers to the degree to which an emotion is pleasant or unpleasant, positive or negative. "Arousal" in this model represents the degree to which an emotion is associated with high or low interest.

For example, a "happy" response might arise from a relatively intense activation of the neural system associated with positive valence and moderate activation of the neural system associated with positive arousal. Other emotional states would differ in their degree of activation of these valence and arousal systems.

"We believe this is the first study to examine the difference in neural activity in brain regions that process valence or arousal between typically developing individuals or those with ASD," said Peterson, who is director of the Division of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry at Keck School of Medicine of USC.

To address this question, the researchers enrolled 51 individuals with ASD and 84 TD individuals. Each participant was shown a range of facial emotions in order to assess these two aspects of emotional experience, based first on their responses, both valence (is the emotion pleasant or unpleasant?) and arousal (degree of interest or attention).

The responses were then separately correlated with neural activity in order to identify systems related to valence and arousal. While the valence was remarkably similar between the two groups, the corresponding neural activity for arousal differed prominently.

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 than are their typically developing counterparts."

The scientists concluded that the near absence of group differences for valence suggests that individuals with ASD are not atypical in all aspects of emotion processing. But the study suggests that TD individuals and those with ASD seem to find differing aspects of emotional stimuli to be relevant.

Explore further: 3-D amplifies emotions evoked by facial expressions

Related Stories

3-D amplifies emotions evoked by facial expressions

November 24, 2015
The research findings highlight the sensitivity of the visual system to depth, and have implications for emotion research, entertainment industry and 3D displays.

Autistic subjects' facial expressions don't always mirror emotions

January 27, 2015
New research by UT Dallas scientists suggests that individuals with autism spectrum disorder can have very expressive faces, but the emotions conveyed can sometimes seem overly intense and unusual.

Brains with autism adapt differently during implicit learning

November 19, 2015
Carnegie Mellon University scientists have discovered a crucial difference in the way learning occurs in the brains of adults with autism spectrum disorder (ASD).

Brain study sheds light on how children with autism process social play

January 26, 2015
Brain scans confirm significant differences in play behavior, brain activation patterns and stress levels in children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) as compared with typically developing children.

Recommended for you

Epigenetics study helps focus search for autism risk factors

January 16, 2018
Scientists have long tried to pin down the causes of autism spectrum disorder. Recent studies have expanded the search for genetic links from identifying genes toward epigenetics, the study of factors that control gene expression ...

Being bilingual may help autistic children

January 16, 2018
Children with Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD) often have a hard time switching gears from one task to another. But being bilingual may actually make it a bit easier for them to do so, according to a new study which was recently ...

No rise in autism in US in past three years: study

January 2, 2018
After more than a decade of steady increases in the rate of children diagnosed with autism in the United States, the rate has plateaued in the past three years, researchers said Tuesday.

Autism therapy: Brain stimulation restores social behavior in mice

December 13, 2017
Scientists are examining the feasibility of treating autistic children with neuromodulation after a new study showed social impairments can be corrected by brain stimulation.

Social phobia linked to autism and schizophrenia

December 11, 2017
New Swinburne research shows that people who find social situations difficult tend to have similar brain responses to those with schizophrenia or autism.

Odors that carry social cues seem to affect volunteers on the autism spectrum differently

November 27, 2017
Autism typically involves the inability to read social cues. We most often associate this with visual difficulty in interpreting facial expression, but new research at the Weizmann Institute of Science suggests that the sense ...

0 comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.