Altered responses to social chemosignals in autism spectrum disorder

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Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is characterized by impaired social communication, often attributed to misreading of emotional cues. Why individuals with ASD misread emotions remains unclear. Given that terrestrial mammals rely on their sense of smell to read conspecific emotions, we hypothesized that misreading of emotional cues in ASD partially reflects altered social chemosignaling. We found no difference between typically developed (TD) and cognitively able adults with ASD at explicit detection and perception of social chemosignals. Nevertheless, TD and ASD participants dissociated in their responses to subliminal presentation of these same compounds: the undetected ‘smell of fear’ (skydiver sweat) increased physiological arousal and reduced explicit and implicit measures of trust in TD but acted opposite in ASD participants. Moreover, two different undetected synthetic putative social chemosignals increased or decreased arousal in TD but acted opposite in ASD participants. These results implicate social chemosignaling as a sensory substrate of social impairment in ASD.

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We thank H. Breer and J. Strotmann for suggesting that we investigate hexadecanal in humans. We thank Ziv and all the instructors and management at Paradive for their gracious hospitality and help. This work was supported by ISF grant #1379/15, ERC Advanced grant #670798 SocioSmell, grant #712254 from the US Air Force Office of Scientific Research Program on Trust and Influence and by the McEwen Fund.

Author information


  1. Department of Neurobiology, Weizmann Institute of Science, Rehovot, Israel

    • Yaara Endevelt-Shapira
    • , Ofer Perl
    • , Aharon Ravia
    • , Daniel Amir
    • , Ami Eisen
    • , Vered Bezalel
    • , Liron Rozenkrantz
    • , Eva Mishor
    • , Liron Pinchover
    • , Timna Soroka
    • , Danielle Honigstein
    •  & Noam Sobel


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Developed the idea: Y.E.-S. and N.S. Ran experiments: Y.E.-S., D.A., A.E., V.B., L.R., E.M., L.P., T.S. and N.S. Developed devices: O.P., D.H., and N.S. Analyzed data: Y.E.-S., N.S., A.R. and O.P. Wrote the paper: Y.E.-S., N.S. and O.P.

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The authors declare no competing financial interests.

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Correspondence to Yaara Endevelt-Shapira or Noam Sobel.

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