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

t autism. This is one very simple and clear-cut finding," Belger said.

Previous brain imaging findings of under-responsiveness in the facial area have led some experts to consider this a key cause of the social impairments observed in autism. But Belger and Dichter said they thought the problem might have more to do with a deficit in "executive function" in portions of the brain's frontal lobes than with a selective deficit in the brain's processing of information from faces.

These portions of the frontal lobes are where "executive" tasks, such as sifting through complex information, selecting task-appropriate responses or inhibiting inappropriate ones, take place. "In other words, these tasks require high levels of cognitive control," Belger said.

"We wanted to find out if these executive functions of particular brain regions that are critical for the appropriate generation of actions show deficits in autistic individuals. In addition, we wanted to see if these deficits were further compounded by the presence of social cues on which executive decisions had to be based," Belger added.

The study compared fMRI scans of people with autism and those without the disorder as they performed a one-hour task that required them to attend to certain items in the visual environment while disregarding other items. Specifically, participants wore special goggles through which were displayed pictures of arrows (non-social items) and faces (social items) and were asked to report the direction of the central arrow or central face by pushing a left or right button.

Participants were shown horizontal rows of five arrows or five faces. Sometimes all the arrows and faces were oriented in the same direction. At other times, the central arrow or face was in the opposite direction.

The test with arrows alone had been used previously in studies elsewhere, but the addition of faces was unique to this new study.

"We wanted to know if previous find
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Contact: L. H. Lang
llang@med.unc.edu
919-843-9687
University of North Carolina School of Medicine
15-Nov-2005


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