Cortical responses to dynamic emotional facial expressions generalize across stimuli, and are sensitive to task-relevance, in adults with and without Autism

Dorit Kliemann, Hilary Richardson, Stefano Anzellotti, Dima Ayyash, Amanda Haskins, John Gabrieli, Rebecca Saxe

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

Abstract / Description of output

Individuals with Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD) report difficulties extracting meaningful information from dynamic and complex social cues, like facial expressions. The nature and mechanisms of these difficulties remain unclear. Here we tested whether that difficulty can be traced to the pattern of activity in “social brain” regions, when viewing dynamic facial expressions. In two studies, adult participants (male and female) watched brief videos of a range of positive and negative facial expressions, while undergoing functional magnetic resonance imaging (Study 1: ASD n = 16, control n = 21; Study 2: ASD n = 22, control n = 30). Patterns of hemodynamic activity differentiated among facial emotional expressions in left and right superior temporal sulcus, fusiform gyrus, and parts of medial prefrontal cortex. In both control participants and high-functioning individuals with ASD, we observed (i) similar responses to emotional valence that generalized across facial expressions and animated social events; (ii) similar flexibility of responses to emotional valence, when manipulating the task-relevance of perceived emotions; and (iii) similar responses to a range of emotions within valence. Altogether, the data indicate that there was little or no group difference in cortical responses to isolated dynamic emotional facial expressions, as measured with fMRI. Difficulties with real-world social communication and social interaction in ASD may instead reflect differences in initiating and maintaining contingent interactions, or in integrating social information over time or context.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)24-43
JournalCortex
Volume103
Early online date21 Feb 2018
DOIs
Publication statusPublished - 30 Jun 2018

Keywords / Materials (for Non-textual outputs)

  • social cognition
  • fMRI
  • emotional faces
  • MVPA
  • autism

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