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Neuroimaging Parses Facial Emotion Recognition in Autism

Neuroimaging Parses Facial Emotion Recognition in Autism

The challenges associated with facial expression recognition — from joy to puzzlement, sadness to anger — can make it difficult for someone with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) to successfully navigate social situations and empathize better 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.

The study format included a comparison of brain activity in ASD individuals with that of 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, M.D.

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 facial expressions 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.

Source: Children’s Hospital Los Angeles/EurekAlert
 
MRI of the brain photo by shutterstock.

Neuroimaging Parses Facial Emotion Recognition in Autism

Rick Nauert PhD

Rick Nauert, PhDDr. Rick Nauert has over 25 years experience in clinical, administrative and academic healthcare. He is currently an associate professor for Rocky Mountain University of Health Professionals doctoral program in health promotion and wellness. Dr. Nauert began his career as a clinical physical therapist and served as a regional manager for a publicly traded multidisciplinary rehabilitation agency for 12 years. He has masters degrees in health-fitness management and healthcare administration and a doctoral degree from The University of Texas at Austin focused on health care informatics, health administration, health education and health policy. His research efforts included the area of telehealth with a specialty in disease management.

APA Reference
Nauert PhD, R. (2015). Neuroimaging Parses Facial Emotion Recognition in Autism. Psych Central. Retrieved on October 20, 2018, from https://psychcentral.com/news/2015/12/01/imaging-study-provides-insights-on-asd-emotional-processing/95593.html

 

Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 1 Dec 2015
Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 1 Dec 2015
Published on PsychCentral.com. All rights reserved.