The face is key

Leigh MacMillan, Ph.D.
Published: November, 2003

Human beings are “face specialists”—we distinguish individuals based on their facial features, and we gather a wealth of emotional information from a muscle flex here or a twitch there. For individuals with autism, though, the human face may be little more than another object in an already confusing world.

It has long been recognized that people with autism fail to make appropriate eye contact and are inattentive or indifferent to the faces of others, says Isabel Gauthier, Ph.D., assistant professor of Psychology and an investigator in the Vanderbilt Kennedy Center. Gauthier and her colleagues, including Robert T. Schultz, Ph.D., associate professor of Clinical Psychology at Yale University, developed tasks to study face recognition using a powerful mode of brain imaging called functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI).

They then used the face recognition tasks to image brain activity in young adults with autism. The investigators found that instead of using the brain’s face-recognition system to discriminate between faces, people with autism tended to rely on areas of the brain involved in object recognition.

The underdeveloped face-recognition system may be a result of a lifelong disinterest in people and consequent failure to develop normal expertise with faces, Gauthier says. The work also suggested that “it may be possible to design a training program that could significantly improve autistic children’s ability to recognize other people by increasing their use of the facial recognition system.” Efforts are underway to do just that.

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