'Emotional blindness'—not autism—linked to impaired perception of internal sensations

June 6, 2016, King's College London
'Emotional blindness'—not autism—linked to impaired perception of internal sensations
Credit: King's College London

A new study by researchers from the Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology & Neuroscience (IoPPN) has identified a link between impaired interoception - the ability to perceive internal sensations such as hunger, pain, disgust or fear - and alexithymia or 'emotional blindness.'

Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) has previously been linked to interoception, which is thought to be responsible for the social and emotional difficulties that are experienced by people with autism.

Alexithymia or 'emotional blindness' results in difficulties in experiencing and expressing one's emotions, and is found in approximately one in two people with ASD, compared to one in 10 people without ASD. Until now it has been unclear whether people with ASD have poor interoception due to their symptoms of ASD or alexithymia.

Punit Shah, first author from the MRC Social, Genetic and Developmental Psychiatry Centre at the IoPPN, King's College London, said: 'Interoception could be described as how you sense internal body signals. This is related to a variety of different socio-emotional abilities such as recognising one's own emotional state, a necessary precursor for the recognition of other's emotions and empathising with them.

'One example could be if someone is visibly angry towards you and your body processes this by increasing your heart rate, making you feel anxious and upset. If you are unable to experience this, it may hamper the social interaction by responding inappropriately.'

The researchers investigated interoception by examining heartbeat perception in three groups of people. First they measured the relationship between both autistic and alexithymic traits and interoception in a non-clinical sample. Second, they recruited a group of people with and without a clinical diagnosis of autism who had similar levels of alexithymia. Participants were asked to sit in a quiet a room and asked to close their eyes and count their heartbeats for four different intervals.

Heartbeat signals were recorded by the researchers using a pulse monitor but the participants were instructed not to measure their pulse by any other means than 'concentrating on their heartbeats.' Other factors that relate to heartbeat perception were recorded and controlled for, including anxiety, depression, BMI, IQ and time perception ability.

The researchers found that ASD was unrelated to interoceptive ability, but that alexithymia predicted impaired interoception. By understanding that impaired heartbeat perception is a mechanism underlying alexithymia - and therefore emotional difficulties experienced by many people with ASD - the researchers hope these findings could provide a therapeutic target for clinical intervention. There is an increasing awareness of alexithymia and it may prove to be important for management of emotional difficulties across many clinical conditions.

Punit Shah added: 'Our study suggests that it could be possible to train people to improve their heartbeat perception, which has previously been shown to relieve symptoms in conditions even when there is no obvious medical cause. This raises the potential of managing alexithymia and in people with and without ASD, in a process similar to mindfulness training (i.e. by focusing on and improving awareness of bodily sensations).'

Explore further: Recovered bulimics poor at perceiving bodies' internal messages, study finds

More information: Punit Shah et al. Alexithymia, not autism, is associated with impaired interoception, Cortex (2016). DOI: 10.1016/j.cortex.2016.03.021

Related Stories

Recovered bulimics poor at perceiving bodies' internal messages, study finds

December 18, 2013
(Medical Xpress)—Women who have recovered from bulimia nervosa have a difficult time perceiving their own heartbeat, according to a new study led by a researcher at the School of Medicine.

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.

Emotional disconnection disorder threatens marriages, researcher says

November 12, 2012
(Medical Xpress)—Communication can be challenging for any married couple, but a personality trait called alexithymia that keeps people from sharing or even understanding their own emotions can further impede marital bliss. ...

'I care for you,' says the autistic moral brain

March 29, 2016
Is it true that autistic people are cold and feel no empath? It is a pervasive stereotype, but when analyzed through the lens of science, reality turns out to be quite different. According to a study at SISSA carried out ...

Having trouble sharing or understanding emotions? MU researcher believes affection could help

April 6, 2011
Every person has some level of alexithymia, as it is the personality trait which keeps people from sharing or even understanding their own emotions. Now, one University of Missouri researcher's latest study indicates that ...

Facial motion a clue to difficulties in social interaction among autistic adults

November 13, 2014
People on the autistic spectrum may struggle to recognise social cues, unfamiliar people or even someone's gender because of an inability to interpret changing facial expressions, new research has found.

Recommended for you

Nearly imperceptible fluctuations in movement correspond to autism diagnoses

January 17, 2018
A new study led by researchers at Indiana University and Rutgers University provides the strongest evidence yet that nearly imperceptible changes in how people move can be used to diagnose neurodevelopmental disorders, including ...

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.

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.