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A developmental magnetoencephalographic study of face processing in autism spectrum disorders

United Kingdom

Research finds that people with autism spend less time looking at other people's faces and they have problems reading emotions from facial expressions. This indicates that they do not develop typical face processing abilities. In this study, post-doctoral fellow Simon Wallace will use magnetoencephalography (MEG) to non-invasively measure brain activity in children with autism during two different face processing tasks. Children from different ages will be examined to better understand the development of the neural circuits that are responsible for face processing. In addition, using MEG, specific neurophysiological “markers” can be identified which are sensitive to facial expression. Understanding how the brain mechanisms used to process faces changes over the age span will allow researchers to identify developmental transitions when therapeutic interventions would be most beneficial. Dr. Wallace is an ideal candidate for this fellowship, having conducted research and published articles on face recognition during graduate school. In particular, for his Ph.D. thesis he developed computerized tests of face expertise and sensitivity to eye gaze direction, which will be used in this study. What this means for people with autism: This study will allow researchers to specifically map the development of neural pathways used both by typically developing children and children with autism, across the full range of development. It will provide insight into impairments in the ability of people with autism to process social cues provided by faces. Findings could lead to interventions targeted to specific developmental stages when the face processing system is particularly receptive to change.