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Special training may help people with autism recognize faces

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"People with autism tend to activate object-related brain regions when they are viewing unfamiliar faces. They also tend to focus on particular features, such as a mustache or a pair of glasses. Normal individuals, whose fusiform gyrus shows activation, look at the whole face and the relationship of features on a face," Aylward said.

In the study, which involved 11 adolescents and adults with autism and 10 age-matched controls, the subjects viewed pictures of cars and people's faces while the fMRI examined their patterns of brain activity. The fusiform gyrus was activated in the control subjects when they were exposed to faces and the inferior temporal gyrus, an area associated with objects, was activated when they looked at cars. However, among subjects with autism only the inferior temporal gyrus was activated when they looked at most faces and the cars. The exception was a picture of the subject's mother, which activated the fusiform gyrus.

This finding could have important implications for intervention. Dawson said the UW's Autism Center is involved in two follow-up studies designed help people with autism to become "face experts." In one project, UW researchers are working with the same 11 adolescents and adults who have autism and are teaching them how to look at a face and what is important about a face to see if the training can help activate the fusiform gyrus. The second is a randomized controlled study involving 24 toddlers and preschool children diagnosed with autism and 24 control subjects. Through behavioral interventions, the children are taught to make eye contact and thus have more experience looking at faces. It involves intensive training 25 hours a week for two years. Dawson and her team will be examining whether such intervention affects brain circuitry.


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Contact: Joel Schwarz
joels@u.washington.edu
206-543-2580
University of Washington
12-Feb-2004


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