Elevated amygdala response to faces and gaze aversion in autism spectrum disorder
Attention Deficit Disorder with Hyperactivity
Child Development Disorders, Pervasive
Autism spectrum disorders (ASD) are often associated with impairments in judgment of facial expressions. This impairment is often accompanied by diminished eye contact and atypical amygdala responses to face stimuli. The current study used a within-subjects design to examine the effects of natural viewing and an experimental eye-gaze manipulation on amygdala responses to faces. Individuals with ASD showed less gaze toward the eye region of faces relative to a control group. Among individuals with ASD, reduced eye gaze was associated with higher threat ratings of neutral faces. Amygdala signal was elevated in the ASD group relative to controls. This elevated response was further potentiated by experimentally manipulating gaze to the eye region. Potentiation by the gaze manipulation was largest for those individuals who exhibited the least amount of naturally occurring gaze toward the eye region and was associated with their subjective threat ratings. Effects were largest for neutral faces, highlighting the importance of examining neutral faces in the pathophysiology of autism and questioning their use as control stimuli with this population. Overall, our findings provide support for the notion that gaze direction modulates affective response to faces in ASD.