Featured Research

from universities, journals, and other organizations

Difficulty in recognizing faces in autism linked to performance in a group of neurons

Date:
March 18, 2013
Source:
Georgetown University Medical Center
Summary:
Neuroscientists have discovered a brain anomaly that explains why some people diagnosed with autism cannot easily recognize faces -- a deficit linked to the impairments in social interactions considered to be the hallmark of the disorder.

Neuroscientists at Georgetown University Medical Center (GUMC) have discovered a brain anomaly that explains why some people diagnosed with autism cannot easily recognize faces -- a deficit linked to the impairments in social interactions considered to be the hallmark of the disorder.

They also say that the novel neuroimaging analysis technique they developed to arrive at this finding is likely to help link behavioral deficits to differences at the neural level in a range of neurological disorders.

The final manuscript published March 15 in the online journal NeuroImage: Clinical, the scientists say that in the brains of many individuals with autism, neurons in the brain area that processes faces (the fusiform face area, or FFA) are too broadly "tuned" to finely discriminate between facial features of different people. They made this discovery using a form of functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) that scans output from the blueberry-sized FFA, located behind the right ear.

"When your brain is processing faces, you want neurons to respond selectively so that each is picking up a different aspect of individual faces. The neurons need to be finely tuned to understand what is dissimilar from one face to another," says the study's senior investigator, Maximilian Riesenhuber, PhD., an associate professor of neuroscience at GUMC.

"What we found in our 15 adult participants with autism is that in those with more severe behavioral deficits, the neurons are more broadly tuned, so that one face looks more like another, as compared with the fine tuning seen in the FFA of typical adults," he says.

"And we found evidence that reduced selectivity in FFA neurons corresponded to greater behavioral deficits in everyday face recognition in our participants. This makes sense. If your neurons cannot tell different faces apart, it makes it more difficult to tell who is talking to you or understand the facial expressions that are conveyed, which limits social interaction."

Riesenhuber adds that there is huge variation in the ability of individuals diagnosed with autism to discriminate faces, and that some autistic people have no problem with facial recognition.

"But for those that do have this challenge, it can have substantial ramifications -- some researchers believe deficits in face processing are at the root of social dysfunction in autism," he says.

The neural basis for face processing

Neuroscientists have used traditional fMRI studies in the past to probe the neural bases of behavioral differences in people with autism, but these studies have produced conflicting results, says Riesenhuber. "The fundamental problem with traditional fMRI techniques is that they can tell which parts of the brain become active during face processing, but they are poor at directly measuring neuronal selectivity," he says, "and it is this neuronal selectivity that predicts face processing performance, as shown in our previous studies."

To test their hypothesis that differences in neuronal selectivity in the FFA are foundational to differences in face processing abilities in autism, Riesenhuber and the study's lead author, neuroscientist Xiong Jiang, PhD, developed a novel brain imaging analysis technique, termed local regional heterogeneity, to estimate neuronal selectivity.

"Local regional heterogeneity, or Hcorr, as we called it, is based on the idea that neurons that have similar selectivities will on average show similar responses, whereas neurons that like different stimuli will respond differently," says Jiang. "This means that individuals with face processing deficits should show more homogeneous activity in their FFA than individuals with more typical face recognition abilities."

They tested the method in 15 adults with autism and 15 adults without the disorder. The autistic participants also underwent a standard assessment of social/behavioral functioning.

The researchers found that in each autistic participant, behavioral ability to tell faces apart was tightly linked to levels of tuning specificity in the right FFA as estimated with Hcorr. This finding was confirmed by another advanced imaging technique, fMRI rapid adaptation, shown by the group in previous work to be a good estimator of neuronal selectivity.

"Compared to the more well-established fMRI-rapid adaptation technique, Hcorr has several significant advantages," says Jiang. "Hcorr is more sensitive and can estimate neuronal selectivity as well as fMRI rapid adaptation, but with much shorter scans, and Hcorr can even estimate neuronal selectivity using data from resting state scans, thus making the technique suitable even for individuals that cannot perform complicated tasks in the scanner, such as low-functioning autistic adults, or young children."

"The study suggests that, just as in typical adults, the FFA remains the key region responsible for face processing and that changes in neuronal selectivity in this area are foundational to the variability in face processing abilities found in autism. Our study identifies a clear target for intervention," says Riesenhuber. Indeed, after the study was completed, the researchers successfully attempted to improve facial recognition skills in an autistic participant. They showed the participant pairs of faces that were very dissimilar at first, but became increasingly similar, and found that FFA tuning improved along with behavioral ability to tell the faces apart. "This suggests high-level brain areas may still be somewhat plastic in adulthood," says Riesenhuber.


Story Source:

The above story is based on materials provided by Georgetown University Medical Center. Note: Materials may be edited for content and length.


Journal Reference:

  1. Xiong Jiang, Angela Bollich, Patrick Cox, Eric Hyder, Joette James, Saqib Ali Gowani, Nouchine Hadjikhani, Volker Blanz, Dara S. Manoach, Jason J.S. Barton, William D. Gaillard, Maximilian Riesenhuber. A quantitative link between face discrimination deficits and neuronal selectivity for faces in autism. NeuroImage: Clinical, 2013; 2: 320 DOI: 10.1016/j.nicl.2013.02.002

Cite This Page:

Georgetown University Medical Center. "Difficulty in recognizing faces in autism linked to performance in a group of neurons." ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 18 March 2013. <www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2013/03/130318151530.htm>.
Georgetown University Medical Center. (2013, March 18). Difficulty in recognizing faces in autism linked to performance in a group of neurons. ScienceDaily. Retrieved April 17, 2014 from www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2013/03/130318151530.htm
Georgetown University Medical Center. "Difficulty in recognizing faces in autism linked to performance in a group of neurons." ScienceDaily. www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2013/03/130318151530.htm (accessed April 17, 2014).

Share This



More Mind & Brain News

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Featured Research

from universities, journals, and other organizations


Featured Videos

from AP, Reuters, AFP, and other news services

Are School Dress Codes Too Strict?

Are School Dress Codes Too Strict?

AP (Apr. 16, 2014) Pushing the limits on style and self-expression is a rite of passage for teens and even younger kids. How far should schools go with their dress codes? The courts have sided with schools in an era when school safety is paramount. (April 16) Video provided by AP
Powered by NewsLook.com
Could Even Casual Marijuana Use Alter Your Brain?

Could Even Casual Marijuana Use Alter Your Brain?

Newsy (Apr. 16, 2014) A new study conducted by researchers at Northwestern and Harvard suggests even casual marijuana use can alter your brain. Video provided by Newsy
Powered by NewsLook.com
Couples Who Sleep Less Than An Inch Apart Might Be Happiest

Couples Who Sleep Less Than An Inch Apart Might Be Happiest

Newsy (Apr. 16, 2014) A new study by British researchers suggests couples' sleeping positions might reflect their happiness. Video provided by Newsy
Powered by NewsLook.com
Cognitive Function: Is It All Downhill From Age 24?

Cognitive Function: Is It All Downhill From Age 24?

Newsy (Apr. 15, 2014) A new study out of Canada says cognitive motor performance begins deteriorating around age 24. Video provided by Newsy
Powered by NewsLook.com

Search ScienceDaily

Number of stories in archives: 140,361

Find with keyword(s):
Enter a keyword or phrase to search ScienceDaily for related topics and research stories.

Save/Print:
Share:

Breaking News:
from the past week

In Other News

... from NewsDaily.com

Science News

Health News

Environment News

Technology News



Save/Print:
Share:

Free Subscriptions


Get the latest science news with ScienceDaily's free email newsletters, updated daily and weekly. Or view hourly updated newsfeeds in your RSS reader:

Get Social & Mobile


Keep up to date with the latest news from ScienceDaily via social networks and mobile apps:

Have Feedback?


Tell us what you think of ScienceDaily -- we welcome both positive and negative comments. Have any problems using the site? Questions?
Mobile: iPhone Android Web
Follow: Facebook Twitter Google+
Subscribe: RSS Feeds Email Newsletters
Latest Headlines Health & Medicine Mind & Brain Space & Time Matter & Energy Computers & Math Plants & Animals Earth & Climate Fossils & Ruins