Special training may help people with autism recognize faces

Scientists trying to understand and treat autism have discovered that the brains of people with autism function differently than those of normal people when they view pictures of unfamiliar people. However, when people with autism look at a picture of a very familiar face, such as their mother's, their brain activity is similar to that of control subjects.

The new study indicates that in people with autism the fusiform gyrus, a region in the brain's temporal lobe that is associated with face processing, has the potential to function normally, but may need special training to operate properly, according to University of Washington researchers Geraldine Dawson and Elizabeth Aylward. They will present their findings today (Feb. 12) at a press briefing at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Seattle.

"It appears that our brains have evolved to have special processors to recognize that something is a face because faces are important in survival, in understanding emotions and in forming special relationships with others," said Dawson, director of the UW's Autism Center and a professor of psychology. "We have special and distinct regions for perceiving faces and others for perceiving objects. These regions are located in different parts of the temporal lobe. Our brain imaging studies are finding that people with autism often use object processing areas when they are looking at faces."

"Children with autism often don't make much eye contact with other people and have little experience in learning to recognize faces," said Aylward, a professor of radiology who interpreted the functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) used in the study.

She said that in adults the fusiform gyrus is reliably activated in face processing, but it takes time for a child's brain wiring to become functional. This process starts early and by age 12 normally developing children show activation in the fusiform gyrus when viewi

Contact: Joel Schwarz
University of Washington

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