Monday, 7 May 2007

Study explains interpersonal barriers in autism

Facial expressions are normally thought to have a significant role in face-to-face communication, giving context and meaning to the words we hear. While most people take the ability to evaluate visual cues for granted, however, a new report has found autistic children lacking in the brain function to discern between a smile and a frown.

Researchers at the University of California, Los Angeles, studied the brain activity of 16 typically developing children and 16 high-functioning children with autism to determine their responses to faces depicting angry, fearful, happy and neutral expressions.

When children in the typically developing group were shown faces with either a direct or indirect gaze, the researchers found significant differences in activity in a part of the brain called the ventrolateral prefrontal cortex (VLPFC), which is known to play a role in evaluating emotions.

In contrast, the autistic children showed no activity in this region of the brain whether they were looking at faces with a direct or an indirect gaze.

"This part of the brain helps us discern the meaning and significance of what another person is thinking," said lead researcher Mari Davies, a graduate student in psychology. "Gaze has a huge impact on our brains because it conveys part of the meaning of that expression to the individual. It cues the individual to what is significant."

The results are said to explain why children diagnosed with autism have varying degrees of impairment in communication skills and social interactions and display restricted, repetitive and stereotyped patterns of behaviour.

"They don’t pick up what’s going on — they miss the nuances, the body language and facial expressions and sometimes miss the big picture and instead focus on minor, less socially relevant details," Davies said. "That, in turn, affects interpersonal bonds."

More information is available from the University of California’s press release.

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