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Brain activity related to processing faces is similar in people with, without autism

New brain imaging research at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill indicates that when people with autism look at a face, activity in the brain area that responds is similar to that of people without autism.

The finding is surprising, as it is widely known that autistic individuals tend to avoid looking directly at faces. The research also counters previous published reports that the face-processing area at the back of the brain is under-responsive in people with autism, and it suggests that specific behavioral interventions may help people with autism improve their ability to interact socially.

The new research will be presented Wednesday (Nov. 16) in Washington, D.C., at the Society for Neuroscience 35th Annual Meeting. The study was conducted by Dr. Aysenil Belger, associate professor of psychiatry in UNC's School of Medicine and of psychology in UNC's College of Arts and Sciences; and Dr. Gabriel Dichter, postdoctoral research fellow within UNC's Neurodevelopmental Disorders Research Center.

The study involved functional magnetic resonance imaging, or fMRI. Unlike standard MRI scans that show anatomical structures in black and white, fMRI offers digitally enhanced color images of brain function, depicting localized changes in blood flow and oxygenation.

When particular regions of the brain increase their neural activity in association with various actions or thought processes, they emit enhanced blood oxygen level dependent signals. The signals can be localized in the brain and translated into digital images that portray neural activity level as a ratio of oxygenated to de-oxygenated hemoglobin, the iron-containing pigment in red blood cells. Researchers then can quantify these signals to generate maps of various brain functions.

"The brain regions 'specialized' for face processing, the fusiform gyrus, activated almost identically in our autistic study participants and the control group of individuals without
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Source:University of North Carolina School of Medicine


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