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Gaze fixation and the neural circuitry of face processing in autism

Abstract

Diminished gaze fixation is one of the core features of autism and has been proposed to be associated with abnormalities in the neural circuitry of affect. We tested this hypothesis in two separate studies using eye tracking while measuring functional brain activity during facial discrimination tasks in individuals with autism and in typically developing individuals. Activation in the fusiform gyrus and amygdala was strongly and positively correlated with the time spent fixating the eyes in the autistic group in both studies, suggesting that diminished gaze fixation may account for the fusiform hypoactivation to faces commonly reported in autism. In addition, variation in eye fixation within autistic individuals was strongly and positively associated with amygdala activation across both studies, suggesting a heightened emotional response associated with gaze fixation in autism.

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Figure 1: Study designs and exemplar stimuli.
Figure 2: Average fixation durations.
Figure 3: Brain clusters with significant group differences in brain activation across all faces in Study I.
Figure 4: Brain clusters with significant group differences in brain activation across all faces in Study II.
Figure 5: Brain clusters associated with significant Group × Familiarity interactions in brain activation in Study II.
Figure 6: Brain activation clusters associated with average eye fixation time for the autistic and control groups, Study I.
Figure 7: Brain activation clusters associated with average eye fixation time for the autistic and control groups, Study II.
Figure 8: Clusters in the left amygdala associated with group differences in activation as a function of amount of eye fixation within subjects.

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Acknowledgements

We thank all the individuals and families who participated in this research, M. Anderle and R. Fisher for technical assistance in data acquisition, and faculty and staff at the Waisman Center and Waisman Laboratory for Brain Imaging and Behavior for administrative and technical support. This work was supported by a US National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) Studies to Advance Autism Research and Treatment (STAART) grant U54MH066398 Project IV (R.J.D.), a National Alliance for Research on Schizophrenia and Affective Disorders (NARSAD) Distinguished Investigator Award to R.J.D., a National Institutes of Health core grant P30 HD03352 (M.M. Seltzer) and a National Institutes of Child Health and Human Development training grant T32 HD07489 (L. Abbeduto).

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Correspondence to Kim M Dalton or Richard J Davidson.

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Dalton, K., Nacewicz, B., Johnstone, T. et al. Gaze fixation and the neural circuitry of face processing in autism. Nat Neurosci 8, 519–526 (2005). https://doi.org/10.1038/nn1421

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