Neural activation to emotional faces in adolescents with autism spectrum disorders


  • Conflict of interest statement: Drs. Lord and Risi receive royalties from a publisher of diagnostic instruments described in this paper. They give all profits generated by the University of Michigan Autism and Communication Disorders Center (UMACC) in regards to this paper and all other UMACC projects to a charity. No other author has a conflict of interest.


Background:  Autism spectrum disorders (ASD) involve a core deficit in social functioning and impairments in the ability to recognize face emotions. In an emotional faces task designed to constrain group differences in attention, the present study used functional MRI to characterize activation in the amygdala, ventral prefrontal cortex (vPFC), and striatum, three structures involved in socio-emotional processing in adolescents with ASD.

Methods:  Twenty-two adolescents with ASD and 20 healthy adolescents viewed facial expressions (happy, fearful, sad and neutral) that were briefly presented (250 ms) during functional MRI acquisition. To monitor attention, subjects pressed a button to identify the gender of each face.

Results:  The ASD group showed greater activation to the faces relative to the control group in the amygdala, vPFC and striatum. Follow-up analyses indicated that the ASD relative to control group showed greater activation in the amygdala, vPFC and striatum (p < .05 small volume corrected), particularly to sad faces. Moreover, in the ASD group, there was a negative correlation between developmental variables (age and pubertal status) and mean activation from the whole bilateral amygdala; younger adolescents showed greater activation than older adolescents. There were no group differences in accuracy or reaction time in the gender identification task.

Conclusions:  When group differences in attention to facial expressions were limited, adolescents with ASD showed greater activation in structures involved in socio-emotional processing.