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People with autism and Asperger Syndrome process faces as objects, Yale study of brain abnormalities finds

Yale researchers have for the first time used functional MRI to study brain organization in persons with autism and Asperger Syndrome and found that they perceive faces as if they were objects.

"This may be a result of a lifelong disinterest in people, and a failure to develop normal expertise for faces," said Robert Schultz, the study's principal investigator and director of the Neuroimaging Research Program in Autism at Yale.

The three-year study resulted in the discovery of reduced activation in the fusiform gyrus -- the classic face area of the cerebral cortex. Researchers also observed increased activation in an adjacent region of the brain that processes non-face objects.

Autism and a closely related condition, Asperger Syndrome, are characterized by impairments in social functioning and interactions. Difficulty recognizing other people by their faces is also one of the characteristics of these disorders.

"This finding is very compelling since it fits with our clinical experience of autism," Schultz said. "Persons with autism and Aspergers have very little interest in people, and our study shows that this disinterest is reflected in the manner in which the visual processing centers are organized in their brains. We cannot know at this point whether this difference in brain organization and function is at the heart of the cause of autism and related disorders or whether it is merely a reflection of what happens to the brain during early development when a person has autism or Asperger Syndrome."

"Of the things that the developing child routinely encounters, the human face is probably the most frequent and important," said Schultz. "The ability to recognize and remember people by their face is critical for all types of interpersonal relationships. The face conveys many important types of information, including a person's age, sex and emotional state. Decoding this information is critical to successful functioning within a group. It is pr
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Contact: Karen Peart
karen.peart@yale.edu
203-432-1326
Yale University
16-Apr-2000


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