Neural circuitry of emotional face processing in autism spectrum disorders

BACKGROUND: Autism spectrum disorders (ASD) are associated with severe impairments in social functioning. Because faces provide nonverbal cues that support social interactions, many studies of ASD have examined neural structures that process faces, including the amygdala, ventromedial prefrontal cortex and superior and middle temporal gyri. However, increases or decreases in activation are often contingent on the cognitive task. Specifically, the cognitive domain of attention influences group differences in brain activation. We investigated brain function abnormalities in participants with ASD using a task that monitored attention bias to emotional faces. METHODS: Twenty-four participants (12 with ASD, 12 controls) completed a functional magnetic resonance imaging study while performing an attention cuing task with emotional (happy, sad, angry) and neutral faces. RESULTS: In response to emotional faces, those in the ASD group showed greater right amygdala activation than those in the control group. A preliminary psychophysiological connectivity analysis showed that ASD participants had stronger positive right amygdala and ventromedial prefrontal cortex coupling and weaker positive right amygdala and temporal lobe coupling than controls. There were no group differences in the behavioural measure of attention bias to the emotional faces. LIMITATIONS: The small sample size may have affected our ability to detect additional group differences. CONCLUSION: When attention bias to emotional faces was equivalent between ASD and control groups, ASD was associated with greater amygdala activation. Preliminary analyses showed that ASD participants had stronger connectivity between the amygdala ventromedial prefrontal cortex (a network implicated in emotional modulation) and weaker connectivity between the amygdala and temporal lobe (a pathway involved in the identification of facial expressions, although areas of group differences were generally in a more anterior region of the temporal lobe than what is typically reported for emotional face processing). These alterations in connectivity are consistent with emotion and face processing disturbances in ASD.