Neuroimaging and Eyetracking Studies of Social Cognition in Autism
California Institute of Technology
Problems that people with autism have in interacting with others are evident, but the biological reasons are not. This leading researcher of the roles of emotion and memory in social functioning is now exploring the biological basis of social dysfunction autism. He will collaborate with leading autism researchers to test the hypothesis that high functioning people with autism have impairments at the earliest stages of social processing, such as how they gaze at other people's faces, but that this impairment is influenced by alterations in higher cognitive processes, such as emotion or memory. The researchers will test this hypothesis by comparing how 10 highly functioning adults with autism, and 20 healthy adults, respond to faces. They will determine whether: 1) adults with autism have impaired abilities to process sensory information from faces; 2) these impairments correlate with altered higher cognitive processes that influence how they interpret information from faces; and 3) cognitive impairments increase in social situations, as participants move from viewing pictures of faces to looking at people, face-to-face. Sensory impairments will be measured by tacking participants' eye movements as they look at pictures of faces. Next, cognitive areas of the brain that influence visual processing will be identified, using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) while patients view the pictures. Then, the effects of social pressure on interactions between sensory and cognitive functions will be assessed by measuring changes in eye gazes that occur as participants move from viewing pictures of faces to interacting with another person via videoconference, to engaging in face-to-face interactions with another person. Significance: If eye gaze abnormalities related to social dysfunction are identified in highly functioning adults with autism, the findings could provide a tool for diagnosing autism in infancy. Moreover, by determining the biological bases for these difficulties in social interactions that are revealed by abnormal eye gazes, improved interventions might be developed and applied early in life.