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Face- and eye-contact-detection in infants at high risk for autism spectrum disorders.

United Kingdom

Research has begun to establish that infants who are eventually diagnosed with autism show early deficits in their ability to orient to faces and to follow another person's gaze. Dr. Johnson has proposed that the same brain circuits that control these infant behaviors may be involved in later social development. Post-doctoral fellow Atsushi Senju will join Dr. Johnson and his team in a study designed to examine face detection and gaze in infants who have a family history of autism and are at a high risk for later diagnosis. The researchers will use standard behavioral techniques to measure length of gaze and face detection in the infants. In addition, they will use a non-invasive method of measuring electrical activity in the brain to measure event related potentials. This will allow Dr. Johnson and Dr. Senju to gauge activity in the brain circuits thought to control face/gaze detection. They will compare high-risk infants to a group of infants at low risk for developing autism, looking for differences that could lead to a method for early detection of autism. What this means for people with autism: This project is one of the first studies to examine the electrophysiological markers in sub-cortical regions during a face and gaze detection task in infants at risk for developing autism. Since this network is thought to play a critical role in the development of social cognition in the earliest period of life, this project promises to further enhance the understanding of the atypical development of the social brain network in infants who will later be diagnosed with ASD.